The Politics of History: A South African Curse

Many organisations abuse History to buttress their credentials or to make political statements. It can also be used as a weapon in political disputes. The fluidity of the interpretation of events creates the ability to distort it for one’s own advantage. Currently it bedevils South African politics mostly as a weapon to silence the ANC’s critics by labelling even their own missteps as being the fault of Apartheid. Let us consider its past and its possible future.

Main picture: An unwitting victim of the war on the statues: The Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth

The issue of historical correctness has lately been appropriated by the EFF under Julius Malema. Their ostensible intention is to rid South Africa of the vestiges of its Colonial Past in the form of the removal and possibly destruction of its Colonialist Statutes. Even the inoffensive Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth commemorating all the horses killed during the Anglo-Boer War has been “dethroned” in this process.

Horse memorial

The desecration of the Horse Memorial

The issue of Rhodes Statue at UCT has recently obtained prominence with the Black Students demanding its removal from its pride of place at the campus.

Many whites have argued in vain that the removal of the monuments is a violation of South Africa’s history. Does their view hold merit especially as regards the Nationalist Government policies and more importantly practices in the past?

Statue of Rhodes

Statue of Rhodes

The most pertinent example of selective arguments is the case of the Battle of Ncome or Blood River as it came to be known. This is the type of exaggerated or overstated name on which all mythologizing is based. In this case, the Boers felt justified in this appellation as 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius soundly defeated an estimated 15 000 to 20 000 Zulu warriors. The date was the 16th December 1838.

This routing of the Zulus under Dingane was to remain dormant in the Afrikaner consciousness for almost 100 years. It was only with the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism that the symbolism of the Battle of Ncome came to play a pivotal role in fostering ethnic nationalism amongst white Afrikaners.

In their belief, this battle demonstrated God’s intervention and hence their divine right to exist as a separate people. Accordingly, the victory over Dingaan was reinterpreted as a sign that God confirmed the rule of whites over black Africans, justifying the Boer project of acquiring land and eventually ascending to power in South Africa.

Voortrekker Monument

Voortrekker Monument

According to Wikipedia, Historian Anton Ehlers traces how political and economic factors changed the themes emphasized during celebrations of the Day of the Vow. During the 1940s and 1950s Afrikaner unity was emphasized over against black Africans. This theme acquired broader meaning in the 1960s and 1970s, when isolated “white” South Africa was positioned against the decolonisation of Africa. The economic and political crises of the 1970s and 1980s forced white Afrikaners to rethink the apartheid system. Afrikaner and other intellectuals began to critically evaluate the historical basis for the celebration. The need to include English and “moderate” black groups in reforms prompted a de-emphasis on “the ethnic exclusivity and divine mission of Afrikaners” (Ehlers 2003).

 Another illustrative example which reflects the changes in the political milieu relates to the ill-fated SS Mendi. This is a case in point where the SS Mendi was sunk when the SS Darro inadvertently collided with it on foggy night on 21st February 1917.

SS Mendi

SS Mendi

This farce is eloquently laid bare in an expose by a Stellenbosch academic, Albert Grundlingh entitled War and Society: Participation and Remembrance – South African Black and Coloured Troops in the First World War, 1914-1918.

After the death toll was announced, there were suspicions in the Black Community that not all had been revealed by the South African military authorities. After the UK authorities instituted a Board of Enquiry, it found that the captain of the SS Darro, a HW Stump was grossly negligent in exceeding the speed limit and secondly by not transmitting the relevant warning signals.

This allayed the unfounded suspicions of the black community. When the current Prime Minister, General Louis Botha expressed his government’s regrets and sympathies about the disaster, the whole house rose to unison to pay their respects to the deceased blacks. According to Grundlingh, this led to ”the unusual sight of an all-white parliament paying their respects to blacks.”

The SS Mendi Memorial in Hollybrook Southhampton

Memorial in Hollybrook Southhampton

The newspapers concurred with this sentiment and even ran headlines such as “They died to set us Free.”

Hopes that this tragedy would bind the different races in South Africa more closely together were forlorn. Powerful forces against equality in South Africa were being marshalled by the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism.

Nonetheless, The Mendi Memorial Club was founded in 1919 with the express purpose of keeping the memory of the ship and its crew alive. For this reason, a number of memorials and monuments were erected: At Arques-la-Bataille in France, at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southhampton and memorials in Mthatha, Langa, Soweto and at UCT.

In memory of the deceased, annual commemorations were held on Mendi Day.

SS Mendi

After ascending to power in 1948, in line with their Apartheid Policy, the National Party actively discouraged these gatherings.

Next to climb on the bandwagon were the various Black Political Organisations who regarded Blacks who participated in these events as being sell-outs, their favourite moniker for their fellow black who did not follow their script. These opponents of Apartheid were uncomfortable with black soldiers participating in so-called White Wars.

Finally in the 1980s, it was the turn of the Nationalist Party to appropriate the symbolism of the blacks fighting for South Africa. Apart from supporting the annual Mendi Day, they arranged for the affixing of a plaque on the Delville Wood Memorial in 1986.

After 1994, the deceased men of the SS Mendi were then left in peace but not for eternity. References to the bravery of the men of the SS Mendi received honourable mention by various ANC dignitaries. This comment in 2002 to the African Union by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is pertinent: “Efforts of Africans to address the problems facing their continent resonate with the aspirations of those brave men who perished on the SS Mendi for a better Africa.”

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

The following year, the ANC announced the creation of a whole array of new decorations and honours. Amongst them to be awarded for heroic deeds was named the Order of Mendi for Bravery.

Whilst not being churlish or disrespectful for the unnecessary loss of life, to call their act of attempting to stay afloat in chilly seas an act of bravery is laughable. Without martyrs of their own, they mythologised the actions of these men for their own political ends.

In hindsight this is probably a more appropriate symbol than the Robert McBride Award for Bravery for placing a bomb at the Magoo’s Pub in Durban. At least it will not stir racial animosities in an already fragile land.

Order of Mendi for Bravery

Order of Mendi for Bravery

That brings us to the latest manifestation of this phenomenon: the removal of the statues and the Rhodes Memorial in particular.

Let us place Rhodes in context historically. Undoubtedly Rhodes was a product of his time where imperialism, racism and exploitative capitalism were at their zenith. On all these counts he is culpable. But that is history.

Being trapped and bound in that milieu, meant that Rhodes was unable to express his true sexuality being a closest homosexual. In that sense he was a victim too.

Cecil John Rhodes

Cecil John Rhodes

I have two fundamental questions to raise. Does the removal of the statue in any way improve the lot of fellow South Africans, but more importantly, what about other symbols of white rule?

The first response that I would expect is for all black recipients of a Rhodes Scholarship forthwith to repay their bursaries. It would be hypocritical to condemn a statue whilst concurrently being a beneficiary of a racist such as Rhodes was.

Even renaming the fund after after a saint such as Nelson Mandela will not remove the stain of being awarded a bursary from a tainted racist fund.

That then begs further questions. What about other symbols of white rule such as the Houses of Parliament, the Union Buildings or the Voortrekker Monument?

The Union Buildings - should they be toppled as well?

The Union Buildings – should they be toppled as well?

One could even expand that list to include police stations, military barracks or the once despised John Vorster Square.

Where does one draw the line on removing all signs of white rule?

Already this debate has stirred racial tensions.

Could the ultimate epitaph of this campaign read as follows?

The Rainbow Nation: A Dream Deferred

The Rainbow Nation Deferred

The Rainbow Nation Deferred

Amongst Karl Marx’s most memorable quotes is this one as it pertains to South Africa: History repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce.”

How true.

But maudlin

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