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History, a wise but ignored teacher

At the launch of the South African History Online student (SAHO) internship programme on October 30, at Iziko Museum's Slave Lodge, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said history, particularly that of South Africa, required rewriting – that is of course by critical reinterpretation and added that "large swaths of this history have been left untold, or told in a very one-sided manner." Of course he is not wrong. South Africa, like many other countries on the African continent, comes from a past defined by inequality and oppression.

This past has until recently, been the subject of very few and dominant narratives told from the perspective of the proverbial victors even if theirs was a guise of colonialism and apartheid. It is therefore fitting that SAHO made the plea that the subject of history should be a compulsory aspect of the current educational curriculum and that it should be debated – its inclusion would certainly beat "life orientation" as far as I am concerned. But what is it about history that makes it such a compelling subject?

If I think back to my schooling days, history was compulsory, at least until high school where one suddenly had to choose between it and physical science, then known simply as physics. At the time, despite the new democratic dispensation, the history that I remember being taught was made up more by that of the English and the Dutch-Afrikaners than it was by that of the indigenous people of South Africa. Of course we covered a bit on Shaka Zulu and the mfeqane/difaqane period but that was about it. Even though one grew up in Mafikeng and attended a sweet little hoërskool, I don't remember any lessons forthcoming about the town's siege during the Second Anglo-Boer War or the roles of the likes of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje acting as court interpreter and diarist of the whole sordid event.

But history, at least in my opinion, is and has always been a means of peering into the past in order to get a sense of one's present and perhaps some sort of insight into the possible future. The question of history therefore, is in many ways a question of who we are as a people. Unfortunately, it would appear that the teacher that is history has over the years been ignored, directly and/or indirectly, to the point of abandonment.

In his hilariously satirical work, The Devils Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce writes of history: "An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools." Of the historian he writes briefly: "a broad-gauge gossip". The above definitions are laughable for the most part although one could argue that within the satirical jokes is an uncomfortable truth or at least an aspect of it that we cannot but acknowledge.

This leads me back to the words of our higher education minister. While he is correct in making the point that South African history needs to be critically re-examined caution must be heeded, that the type of re-examining of which he speaks is not the kind that simply replaces one dominant narrative with another. Given that we are currently in the year of the ruling party's centenary celebrations, it should go without saying that a critical re-examination of where we come from as a people and as a country should invariably include claims around how democracy was attained and by whom.

There can be no holy cows or perpetuated myths that go unexamined. How much of our past do we know and how much don't we know are questions, the answers to which will never be presented by mere spontaneity or rhetoric – we ought to not only learn more about our past but question the conclusions that we find ourselves led to if need be.

Personally, I view the writing of history as more than the role specifically assigned and defined through academia alone. Various other practices have revealed themselves to be just as capable, the photographic oeuvre of the now late Alf Kumalo for example tells a story that stretches back many years. His works sits comfortably within art history and photojournalism. Literature too, has many examples of works that do more than entertain the mind with a story or the social commentary of the times. Works such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart or perhaps Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons, to name but a few, are exemplary.

In the end, we would do well to heed the free lessons that history affords us. As a young democracy still grappling with the growing pains of defining to ourselves what it means to have the freedoms that we do, can we really afford not to?

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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