/ 21 February 2008

My (ancestral) mother

New History of South Africa
by Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga

One of the most tragic legacies of apartheid is how little we know about each other. The successful segregation of our society and the accompanying struggle against oppression by the majority of black people left little room for cultural exploration in a time of fear and loathing.

Perhaps an even greater tragedy is how little we know about ourselves.

Let me speak for myself. I was born into an Afrikaner family with a seemingly ‘traditional” background. My father’s dad was a reverend in the Sendingkerk (the Dutch Reformed Church’s coloured wing) and my mother’s father was a policeman. For most of their adult lives, my grandmothers did not have full-time jobs.

My parents are both teachers and I was their first-born, christened during the first weeks of 1981 in the same Dutch Reformed Church, blissfully unaware of the horrors taking place outside the privileged walls of my suburban youth.

Being ‘white” was never strange — that’s what everybody around me looked like. My parents, my sisters and all my schoolmates were as pale as I was. Nothing in the world could convince me that I was part of a minority group who used the most atrocious means to rule the land — not that anyone tried.

Imagine the surprise — but that’s a story for another day.

Fast forward to 2005. I am 24 years old and working the crime and courts beat on a Johannesburg daily.

Journalist Max du Preez’s Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets was given to me as a birthday present and I couldn’t wait to start reading it. Made aware of the dire need for ‘new history” during my studies at Stellenbosch, I am fascinated by the idea of ‘creating” history by telling untold stories that didn’t make the cut under colonialism or apartheid.

Page 31 hits me like a brick between the eyes:

‘An interesting early example [of freed slaves becoming successful traders themselves] is Angela of Bengal, a remarkable Indian slave woman brought to the Cape by magistrate Pieter Kemp and sold to Jan van Riebeeck. In 1662 Van Riebeeck sold her to Abraham Gabbema, who liberated her four years later ‘out of pure goodwill’. She was only the third slave to be freed at the Cape.

‘Angela was given a small plot in what we today call Cape Town’s City Bowl, where she grew vegetables to sell to passing ships. She soon became quite wealthy, even employing a slave by the name of Scipio Africanus. Angela complied with all the white community’s minimum standards for entry into their society: she was baptised as a Christian, attended church regularly and spoke Dutch.

‘In 1669 she married the Dutch free burgher Arnoldus Willemsz Basson and bore him three sons, Willem, Gerrit and Johannes. Within a few years after her husband’s death she had more than doubled the joint estate. All her children from her two marriages married white people and many living Afrikaner families have her as their ancestral mother.”

My ancestral mother was a ‘remarkable Indian slave woman” and nobody ever bothered to tell me!

I am now an unapologetic proponent of this piece of information, particularly at family gatherings. I devour any bit of information about Angela of Bengal. It has changed the way I think of my people and myself.

I was immediately teased by the title of Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga’s New History of South Africa. What is ‘new history”? Is it possible to ‘create” history, as Du Preez did? Or are they merely trying to produce a more balanced account of the captivating story of this land?

I was also curious to see if my ancestral mother’s story would feature in this beautifully illustrated work of 454 pages — it does, in part.

In the introduction the authors describe the need for ‘new history” writing in South Africa after decades of ‘white historiography — [that] tended to deal more with relations between the British and the Boers than with the so-called ‘native question’”.

Included in these was the myth of the ’empty land” — that the Voortrekkers of the 1830s arrived in empty land depopulated by the Mfecane. ‘On these grounds it was (falsely) claimed that the whites had as much right to the land as the blacks.”

According to Giliomee and Mbenga, the Oxford History of South Africa, published between 1969 and 1971, represented a major break with the propagandist historiography and highlighted the issues of first-millennium food production, cattle-rearing and metallurgy.

‘Our goal has been to present our history in all its complexity in a fair and balanced manner. We have striven for objectivity. Yet it would be foolhardy to deny the persistence of subjectivity.”

It would also be foolhardy to try to read New History of South Africa in one go, or to try to summarise the contents of the book for the purposes of a review.

Suffice to say that the content is comprehensive and reflects a more balanced version of the South African story than has been published. It is beautifully illustrated with rare photographs and illustrations and written in an easy-to-follow style.

This is a book that should not only be prescribed for all South African learners, often disillusioned with the enormity of their country’s past and encouraged to opt for science or mathematical training, but should also be read by every South African adult to comprehend our unique heritage.

New History of South Africa is an impressive body of work that will contribute immensely to our hampered knowledge of ourselves and the people with whom we share this country.

Background basics
Section 1: From the first people to the first settlements
The book begins by reminding us that everyone living in the modern world is ‘out of Africa”. But the early history of South Africa is also a history of migration and ‘everyone in South Africa is descended from a migrant”.

It tells of the Australopithecus (the ‘southern ape”) — the human-like species with longer thighs and shorter arms than other primates that roamed the African savannahs from four to 1,5-million years ago; of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe and its rain-maker king; of the first multinational company, the Dutch East India Company, which established a refreshment station at Table Bay in 1652; and of the frontier wars between the amaXhosa and the Boer.

Section 2: From the great irruptions to African nationalism
This section takes an in-depth look at the Mfecane wars of the 1800s and their causes; the establishment of a British colonial presence in the Cape Colony and the rest of the country; the discovery of diamonds in 1867; and the origins of African nationalism.

Section 3: From agrarian to industrial society (1850 — 1945)
The section starts with the annexation of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) by the British crown and the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand. It also addresses the outbreak of the South African War, the unification of South Africa in 1910, the establishment of the ANC in 1912 and South Africa’s role in World Wars I and II.

Section 4: From an Afrikaner state to an African state (1945 — 2005)
The rise and fall of apartheid is extensively discussed in this section, as well as the struggle against apartheid and the ANC’s role in reshaping South Africa. The book ends with the first democratic elections in 1994 and the successes and failures in 11 years under ANC rule.