One of the weapons historians use to defend their discipline from the ill-disciplined hordes from commerce, computer and media studies is a banner with the slogan “to understand the present you must understand the past”. I’ve tried this tactic myself — and have been bowled, banner and all, into the gutter as battalions of first-years head for the computers and move, as their counter-slogans say, “into the future”.
And yet increasingly over the past few months, as the latest world crisis moves towards war, it is not the future but history, the tragic and terrifying past, of which I am reminded. It is time for history to reclaim and regain its place as the discipline not only of the past, but of the future.
Let’s look at an event from South Africa’s past. One-hundred-and-twenty years ago the most powerful country in the world came to the conclusion that it should force a change in the geo-politics of a distant part of the world in which it had an interest/
It was time, this great power felt, to bring progress to the region. If this meant removing some of the less progressive individuals and states from the equation — well, who could object to the march of civilisation and of Christianity?
The most powerful country was, of course, Great Britain. The obstacle to the plan to bring about a unified, progressive, capitalist South Africa was the Zulu kingdom under Cetshwayo kaMpande.
How was the plan carried out? First the argument had to be individualised — it is easier to hate a person than a people — and a case was devised against the Zulu king.
The press and MPs in London were fed reports showing that Cetshwayo was a cruel despot. His people yearned to be released from the tyranny of his rule. His army was a “celibate man-slaying machine” that posed a threat to peace and progress in South Africa. He was in contact with other African leaders, urging them to resist white rule and restore the idle savagery of traditional Africa. The safety and security of South Africa, it was argued, depended on the removal of the Zulu king, and thousands of British troops were ordered to the borders of the Zulu kingdom to prepare for this.
But not everyone agreed that war was necessary. A commission was set up to examine the boundary dispute between the Zulu and the Boers — and it found in favour of the Zulu.
But the finding was not made public. Instead an ultimatum was drawn up: if the Zulu king did not disband his army within 30 days, then the British army would do so by force. Of course it was known that the Zulu king would never abandon his sovereignty. In January 1879 the British invaded the Zulu kingdom.
It is all so reminiscent of what is happening today in the plans to invade Iraq. I am not, of course, arguing that the historical links are direct: a Zulu king is not like an Iraqi dictator; and the reasons that those who rule the United States need to control the Middle East today are not the same as those that drove Britain to gain control of South Africa more than a century ago. But if we step back from these events and take the broader perspective, then the landscape becomes familiar — it is the landscape of imperialism.
And this is what we see. A distant, sovereign state gets in the way of the plans of a world power to extend its interests. In order to get rid of this nuisance it is decided to use war to bring about regime change. Of course this can’t be said openly, so a great moral purpose — freedom for the oppressed — is invoked. The media are fixed, allies are bribed, attempts at peace are subverted, an individual is depicted as the epitome of evil. Massive numbers of troops are moved into the region and an ultimatum is drawn up to provide the pretext for war.
It is such themes that link the imperial past with events in the contemporary world. It is these imperatives — when those with power use moral arguments to justify their destruction of the less powerful —that characterise so many imperial wars. It is these themes that the British invasion of the Zulu kingdom of 1879, and the intended invasion of Iraq today, have in common. And it is these shared themes that give me the confidence to write on my banner the embattled historians’ slogan: “to understand the present we must understand the past”.
And my confidence in history extends further. If I am correct in suggesting that, despite the enormous differences in specific details, it is still possible to use imperial wars of the past to understand the imperial wars of the present, then it might also be possible to use the past to gain some insight into what’s going to come. Let’s look at what happened in the Zulu kingdom after the invasion began.
Firstly, the invading force’s modern military technology — rifles, machine guns, artillery and rockets — inflicted terrible casualties on men armed with assegais. Then there was the damage that occupation by an invading army did to the non-combatants — the women, the children and the aged. In the end the Zulu terminated their military resistance to limit this collateral damage. They surrendered, the king was exiled and the victors divided the country among those who had opposed the old order. Civil war broke out: various forces sitting on the ex-kingdom’s borders moved in to get hold of what pieces were left. The result? The Zulu lost their independence, their autonomy, the products of their labour and their land. It has never been recovered.
So the lessons to be learned from imperial history are severe. Once the war plan goes into action dreadful suffering will be visited on the people in whose name the war is waged. They will then be liberated from despotic rule: a liberation that will prove hollow as the new rulers fight for their share of the spoils. There can be no democracy: democracy is too difficult to manipulate. The people in whose name the war was waged will lose again — just as the people of the Zulu kingdom lost the moment they were liberated by the British from the despotic rule of their king.
The lessons from history about the future are therefore gloomy, dreadfully gloomy: victory for cultural arrogance, media spin, lies, for those who already possess by far the greatest holdings of the world’s weapons of mass destruction, the further suffering of a people who have already suffered more than enough.
But we can’t leave it at that and there is a third slogan that those who believe in the importance of history like to use. It is one that carries a warning: “Unless we understand the mistakes of the past we are condemned to repeat them.”
And here there is a suggestion that we are learning at last; a hint that we are beginning to understand something about the history of imperial power, about the use of force in the making of our global world, about the lies propagated in pursuit of Western civilisation. The hopeless inadequacy of the men and women pursuing war in the Middle East, the transparency of their diplomatic manoeuvring, has become apparent to the people of the world, and millions are coming to realise that the imperial process has to be halted.
On February 15 the ordinary people of the world went on to the streets to show their opposition to this latest imperial adventure. It was the largest popular demonstration in the history of the world. We often hear how the global economy is made possible by the instant movement of capital. Now the people of the globalised world are on the move. At last we have not just an empire, but protest at empire, upon which the sun never sets.
The struggle for people’s rights, for democracy, for the end of the system of lies and deceit by which the global few rule the global many, is only just beginning. The disparities in power and control remain immense. Our understanding of the way in which imperialism has worked against popular aspirations has yet to be developed and spread.
A closer examination of what happened in the South African past, of how the exercise of imperial violence shaped South Africa, does enable us to understand the present more clearly through the past. Hopefully, we will also be able to use this understanding to avoid repeating past mistakes. For, in spite of the obvious differences, it is still possible to discern in the preparations being made for war today, the echoes of other imperial wars, like the war that was made on the Zulu kingdom, so long ago in terms of years, and yet so close to us in terms of the broad objectives of those who prosecuted it, and the methods they used. We have to find ways to stop it happening yet again, to anyone, anywhere.
Jeff Guy is professor of historical studies at the University of Natal, Durban, author of The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom, and a member of Minister of Education Kader Asmal’s ministerial history committee