|"Our nation has lost its greatest son," President Jacob Zuma
May former president Nelson Mandela Rest in peace
THE 23rd biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society held in Durban titled “The Past and its Possibilities: Perspectives of Southern Africa” was an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. In three days over 100 academics — many of them post-graduate students — presented well over 150 papers, keynote addresses and various panel discussions.
Subject matter ranged over questions of identity, archives, marriage, missionaries, disease, gender, conservation, the Cold War, accounting and biography — there was even the launch of two landmark books, the long-anticipated The First President: A Life of John Dube by Heather Hughes and Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual by Hlonipha Mokoena.
Although history is popularly understood to be about the past, the word “possibilities” in the conference’s title suggested the future and I don’t think there was one paper that didn’t cast a light on South Africa present and hint at possible futures.
It was in the middle of the second day, after a session titled “The Beach in Southern African History”, that my response to the conference began to coalesce.
Although I was excited, enlightened and challenged by what was on offer, there was no denying a feeling of immense sadness. There comes a point when you have to face the fact that South African history is relentlessly sad. Even happy faces on holiday snaps at the seaside come at the expense of others denied access to the sands.
The trip to the beach was preceded by a keynote address titled “After the Romance, Tragedy? Rethinking South Africa’s National Liberation Struggle” from Jacob Dlamini, journalist, author of a memoir, Native Nostalgia, and currently a PhD candidate in the history department at Yale University.
Dlamini’s address bounced off his published abstract which noted that “the failure of the ANC in particular and South Africa in general to live up to the utopian promises of the anti-apartheid struggle” had created a crisis of confidence in the future. In turn this had put an end to the glib “romantic” version of the struggle that saw a promised land claimed after decades of trials and tribulations. A version so focused on the future that the past was erased or only permitted a mention if it accommodated this rose-tinted view.
The unrealised hopes of an imagined future had also seen historians begin to question and re-examine romantic versions of the past. “This has, in turn, made possible the start of a second wave of revisionist scholarship in South African historical studies, the first wave having been in the 1970s.”
Dlamini, very much part of this “second wave”, posed the question: “What if historians told the story of South Africa’s liberation struggle as a tragedy instead of a romance?”
The tragedies lie close to home. Dlamini began his address with a story, a story that disclosed a secret. Playing post-modern games, he said it was fictional but, as Rudyard Kipling observed, a “tale that is told is a true tale as long as the telling lasts”. Dlamini’s tale told of a relative who was a collaborator with the apartheid security establishment. What was one supposed to do with such secrets Dlamini asked, suggesting that many present could tell similar stories.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission an estimated 25 000 people were killed between 1960 and 1994. Casualties of apartheid. Many of them remain unidentified, their tales untold. “We need to walk back on the long walk to freedom and try to identify those corpses,” said Dlamini. Adding that the lack of official impetus to find out was strange in a culture that places so much importance on ancestors. Who are these ancestors, unremembered, unhonoured? “If you died of a heart attack in London, it’s probably easier to get into Freedom Park, compared to some anonymous person who died in South Africa.”
In another session Dlamini presented a paper “The Man who was September: Reconstructing Apartheid’s Counter Insurgency Archive”, which also involved a collaborator, an ANC operative who was arrested and under threat of torture confessed all and named names. People died.
Later, when confronted with this betrayal, his response was straightforward: “I did not want to die.” But then made a counteraccusation: “What about the ANC operatives who hadn’t stuck to the rules?” he asked. The rule that said if someone was captured it was to be assumed they would spill the beans under torture and that all plans known to that operative should be changed. “You didn’t stick to the rules, you didn’t change the plans,” he said. People died. Who is the guilty party now?
Dlamini wasn’t interested in glibly assigning guilt or innocence. Complex matters need to remain complicated. Human beings have a tendency to simplify matters, but sometimes there is only complexity. And that abiding sadness. “History is not where we go for comfort,” said Dlamini, “but for meaning.”
After such matters a session on “The Beach in Southern African History”, coincidentally chaired by Dlamini, looked to promise some light relief. Glen Thompson, from the history department at Stellenbosch University, presented a paper on the South African surfing culture of the sixties, the story of a counterculture, but one that ironically flowered within the culture of apartheid. The beach became another apartheid exclusion zone and the premier surfing event of the time, the Gunston 500, was supported by Rhodesian tobacco money.
Heather Hughes, a principal teaching fellow at Lincoln University in the United Kingdom, examined the emergence of a beach culture among Durban’s Africans in the early part of the 20th century in her paper “Struggling for a Day on the Sun”. Africans were grudgingly allowed a beach, but what about lifeguards? Well, they were white and they refused to work on the black beach. People drowned. When a Zulu woman saved someone from drowning, she was awarded a civic medal but when she asked to become a lifeguard her request was denied. All this, long before the official apartheid of 1948.
There were other stories of mean-spiritedness. White beach users complained about the presence of black domestic workers on white beaches looking after white children — because they were occupying the white change huts.
What Dlamini’s address and the beach session brought home was the element of the personal. Apartheid in its structural form can be demonised but those individual betrayals and cruelties, the sheer nastiness of people to other people, are not structural evils: they are bred in the bone.
Yes, there are stories of resistance and heroism. Beacons of light amid the encircling gloom, names such as Colenso, Dube, Luthuli, Mandela, to mention but a few. But acknowledging them also means acknowledging the immensity of what they stood in opposition to. There is no escaping history, or its sadness.
The sadness continues. That second wave of scholarship is sorely needed to counter both a romantic version of the past and the version currently being punted by the governing elite. President Jacob Zuma has claimed the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 as an ANC event. It wasn’t — in fact the youth of June ’76 were castigated as irresponsible in an ANC monthly published in July of the same year. Elsewhere Julius Malema has claimed ANC ownership of Sharpeville, conveniently airbrushing the PAC out of the picture.
As Xolela Mangcu, convenor of the Platform for Public Deliberation at the University of Johannesburg and author of The Democratic Movement, in a panel discussion on “The State of the Archives”, pointed out, recourse to the archives can correct such views and prevent the appropriation of history. “You can go and check what really happened in the archive,” he said. “The archive is deeply implicated in our political future.”
The fact that the state archives are now dysfunctional is not exactly encouraging. So is there any hope to be had as the barbarians gather at the gate? If there is, it’s in that second wave of historians, that emerging generation of commentators and analysts, who challenge the orthodoxies, who challenge the appropriation of our past.
So cheer up and hit the beach. It’s time to catch the wave.