We deserve histories that have not been sanitised

One of the many reasons for studying history is the insight it provides into the present. Contrary to what many think, this is mainly because history is not the past. Rather, history is an interpretation of the past that is bound and shaped by its present. The past is a strange place, a contested space, a foreign country, to which we cannot go. The past cannot be reconstructed. The best we can do is reinvent and re-present the past, based on the traces it has left us.

Historians are subject to the standards and values of their academic discipline: to imagine and re-present the past in as accurate and unbiased a way as possible, but historians do not have exclusive claim to the past. History cannot be monopolised by anyone or by any one group. It is open to reimaginings and re-presentations that may not prioritise accuracy, balance or fairness.

For this reason, we should re-cognise that there is a difference between history as an academic discipline and history as a private or public enterprise. Yet this dichotomy should not be thought of as indicating a hierarchy. Academic history is not necessarily more reliable than public or popular history, but at least professional historians are aware of the interpretative nature of their work and are held in check by peer review. Nonetheless, history is not an exact science. Its conclusions change over time and with time.

It is also worth noting that to refer to history in the singular is arguably flawed. Any work that begins with the title “The history of …” or, even worse, “The definitive history of …”, ought to be approached with scepticism. There is no one history, but multiple histories, of people, places, processes and events. At best, we can know a history of something and that particular version may change over time, as the present changes. Why? Because present priorities and prerogatives, of the economic, political and sociocultural varieties, are in constant flux and transformation. As such, history changes; it is never static. And that’s why it is possible to ask: What history does our future deserve?

Which statues belong?
It appears that South Africans are in the midst of an identity crisis and central to this crisis is the question of belonging. Which statues belong? Which people belong?

Statues, like books, are not inanimate objects. They stand for human actions, thoughts and ideas. That’s why the vandalising and removal of statues is such an emotive issue. It represents the erasure or expunging of parts of the past and, as such, de-legitimises the presence of the ideas and people the statues symbolise.

The South African collective – that imagined collective we tend to call the nation – is fracturing as millions of citizens, and migrants, find themselves in a daily struggle for survival and, in turn, belonging. In such a context, anger and frustration can easily boil over into violence. Victims will find victims. Victims can, and do, become killers.

In such a context it is necessary to focus on our national historical narrative and to consider how interpretations of the past can breed social fracturing or promote social accord.

History can become the pursuit of an exclusive, exclusionary past and this can easily foster cultural arrogance – the type of cultural arrogance that leads to xenophobia and racism.

Thus, public commemorations of South Africa’s past, in the form of statues and monuments, should reflect the multiplicity of histories and peoples that call this place home. Redefining our collective past in creative rather than destructive ways will produce a more balanced historical narrative and perhaps promote a more inclusive national identity in the process.

We need to be aware of the risks involved in trying to erase aspects of the past; in trying to establish a sanitised version of the past – one that only tells good or heroic stories about the present, as defined by present norms, values and political agendas.

Every sanitised history requires a villain: the antagonist against which the positive, self-righteous attributes of the protagonist can be juxtaposed. Every identity requires its other, its counterpoint, its opposite. Identities are constructed and reconstructed as much in terms of what they are not as in terms of what they are. All too often, the other is also seen as a threat, an undesirable that poses a menace to the identity of those doing the “othering”.

Cultural arrogance is a powerful generator of perceptions of the other. And, although most perceptions are fictitious and informed by stereotypes and generalisations, they are incredibly powerful. The past holds countless examples of people being spurred to action, time and time again, by the power of unreliable perceptions.

Unreliable histories can generate unreliable perceptions. The past reveals an intriguing trajectory that often begins with a history-making effort to legitimise a particular identity and its relations to those labelled its others. This can lead to cultural arrogance and its attendant disparaging perceptions of those who are different. Cultural arrogance breeds contempt for the other; we sometimes call it xenophobia or racism.

Dehumanising a group
Contempt feeds upon notions that the other does not belong, that the presence of the other is illegitimate. The contempt for the other may even result in the steady dehumanisation of the target group. And, when there is sufficient contempt, there is the potential for action, which may take the form of xenophobic violence and, if taken to its ultimate extreme, genocide.

How history is moulded and told plays a fundamental role in this process. As noted, the exclusion of the other often begins with how history is narrated and commemorated by the dominant social group, which is not necessarily the ethnic majority.

The African subcontinent has been a meeting place for different peoples for thousands of years; it has witnessed waves of human migration, settlement and displacement. It is a place familiar with conflict. We cannot wish that away. Throughout our history there have been winners and losers, and winners at some points have been losers at other times.

After enjoying free rein for several thousand years, the Bushmen – the original indigenous peoples of the African subcontinent – lost out on land and resources when the Khoikhoi followed them south about 2?500 years ago. Together the Bushmen and Khoikhoi lost out on land and resources when the Bantu-speaking peoples also moved south in a series of migrations emanating from Central Africa, settling in Southern Africa about 1?000 years ago.

Then European immigrants (Portuguese, Dutch, French and German) arrived in the 1600s, adding to the conflict over land and resources, and also bringing involuntary immigrants – slaves – with them. Then the British arrived, complicating matters further. But the interactions between these groups were not only conflictual: mixed-race groups emerged through trade and cultural exchange, such as the Griqua, who are of mingled Khoi-san, slave and European descent.

The Bushmen were no pushover: they fought the Khoikhoi, the amaXhosa and the Europeans for their place in the sun. The Khoikhoi skirmished with the amaXhosa, the Bushmen and the Europeans. The amaXhosa battled the Europeans in nine frontier wars from 1779 to 1879.

The amaXhosa absorbed groups pushed south by the violent emergence of the powerful Zulu kingdom in the 1820s. The amaZulu clashed with the amaNdebele and later with the Voortrekkers.

The Boers would eventually fight the British and, by 1902, they too were a colonised people. Every group that has inflicted harm on another in South Africa has been the victim of harm itself. South Africa is born out of all of this, out of a past of struggle and victimhood.

This is important to recognise, because nothing shapes identity quite like victimhood. Victim identities, ironically, are capable of perpetrating incredible harm against others and seem able to justify the inflicting of harm as being in the interests of defeating or overcoming their own victimhood.

Every identifiable population group in South Africa can claim to have been a victim of another at some point in the country’s human history. The Bushmen were the victims of everybody else, as were the Khoikhoi. The Bantu-speaking peoples were the victims of the Boers, who were the victims of the British, who were the victims of resurgent Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th century, along with everybody else.

Our past reveals that indigeneity (the condition of being indigenous) is not as neat as some, especially politicians, would have us believe. And, in a country where belonging clearly matters, claims to indigeneity also matter. Indigeneity in South Africa is layered: waves of immigration, over land and sea, have produced degrees of indigeneity. For instance, the Bushmen are the most indigenous, certainly more indigenous than the Griqua, who are also more indigenous than the Afrikaner, but with whom they nonetheless share genetic and cultural similarities.

But let’s not get carried away with how complex South Africa’s human history is. We may just begin to think of ourselves as unique and exceptional – or perhaps it’s too late for that? Yes, South Africa is a complexly historied place, but so are all places.

Who then, in South Africa in 2015, is entitled to narrate the past? Whose version and what version of the past matters and counts as legitimate? Bear in mind that some South Africans have already been rendered invisible by history in the past. For much of the 20th century, South African history was taught as having begun with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay in April 1652. The Bushmen and the Khoikhoi were airbrushed out of the narrative.

Forgotten Bushmen
The Bushmen were in many ways “rediscovered” when the Jamie Uys film The Gods Must Be Crazy was released in 1980, and then again after 1994. Yet, well-intended acknowledgements, such as the prominent position afforded to the Bushmen on our national coat of arms, along with the national motto in !Xam (meaning “Diverse people unite”), appear to have done little to raise awareness of their plight; they remain largely forgotten. Deny people a place in history and you can deny their legitimacy, their belonging, their existence.

The ways in which the past is represented are representative of the dominant ideologies of the present. Therefore, if South Africans want to continue to pursue a future that embraces the ethos of our constitutional democracy, we need to decide not on a history we want, or that some want, or that some feel entitled to force on others, but on a history that reflects the journey that our collective complexities, contradictions and contests have taken on their way to the present.

We do not require a definitive history informed by a combination of political dogmatism and socio-cultural bias, which, in its bid to provide historical legitimacy for a particular cause, will exclude those aspects of the past that do not neatly fit. More importantly, and more dangerously, authoritative histories will also exclude those deemed outsiders – those not belonging, those considered to be an illegitimate presence.

The history our future deserves is an inclusive one, a history that acknowledges the southern tip of Africa’s complex human history, which is still unfolding. We have not reached the end of history. This part of the world continues to be a meeting place for diverse peoples from various places around the continent and beyond (some are identified as Malawian, Zimbabwean or Nigerian). It is inevitable that complex human interactions in this place called South Africa will continue in the future, but will our national historical narrative reflect and accommodate this?

Jared McDonald teaches in the department of history at the University of the Free State’s Qwaqwa campus

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