Opinionista Ian Ollis 31 March 2011

Let’s re-write African history – again

It is a truism that history is written by the conqueror – or whoever rules at any given time. Even the origins of the Universe seem fraught with divergent “interpretations”. And if history that old can be messed with, what about recent history? Is consensus about history possible?

The first time I remember consciously thinking about the ownership of our history was in what used to be called standard eight (grade 10) at school. I had been allocated to the higher grade history class and the history teacher was handing out our textbooks for the year. Erith Budge taught history at my school and he first handed out a slim textbook published in South Africa: “This is the textbook recommended by the National Party education system,” he remarked, “Take this one home and lock it up. Just be sure to bring it back by the end of the year and hand it in.”

He then handed out a much thicker tome, published in Great Britain, which he proceeded to tell us was the book we would mostly be using in class to understand our history. This textbook, he believed, would give us a more international perspective on our history, as a nation, and the quality of the text was much higher.

Budge had been quite an ingenious teacher. He understood the weakness of the skewed perspective of the apartheid-era history being taught. To help us, he had ordered the much thicker textbooks which were supposed to be used only for the teachers to gain background material. He had ordered the four full copies which teachers were allowed each year, until he had enough copies for our whole class. We guarded those very valuable textbooks with our lives, covered them in plastic and returned them in pristine condition at the end of the year. All of that taught me that there was more than one perspective on history and that those in power often control what we learn as children. I have always suspected since that the prevailing ideological view of history, politics and economics is really just one temporary perspective, which should be challenged and reviewed from time to time.

The history of Africa has been written many times and from different perspectives. I am currently reading “The Scramble for Africa” by Thomas Pakenham … it’s a real tome! As histories of Africa go, it is probably a good one. But each history of Africa seems to be written with a strong agenda and successive governments in South Africa have taught our children history from the perspective of their worldview often having a strong ideological bias, to prop up some ideological agenda or support government propaganda. The Dutch Colonial Era, The British colonial era, the Smuts government, The National Party apartheid history, and more recently, the Post-Apartheid story taught in our schools from a liberation perspective as if it too is the “correct” view.

What has begun to concern me is the simplistic divide into the two broad kinds of African history. There is the colonial-type history showing how the colonial powers brought good of various kinds to Africa – Packenham refers to the three Cs : Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation – and opened Africa up to the world. Trade boomed and Western powers delivered infrastructure and tools, while teaching civilised values and worked to stamp out unhealthy, dangerous and uneconomical practices.

Then there are the new or “modern” histories. Africa was raped by the western or colonial powers. However, Africans were inherently good before the colonial powers came and oppressed people, dragging them into slavery and stealing the natural resources. African people should have been left in their pristine natural conditions and the attempt has been to expunge colonialism from Africa, put African people back in charge and liberate them from their oppressors. Everything native and natural was good and everything colonial and imported was bad.

People then get to choose which of these two streams to follow and which story to plug their own national identity into. These histories have been emphasised by successive African governments seeking to give legitimacy to their particular government’s raison d’etre.

I don’t buy either neat package. Africa’s history, like the history of all regions, has been very messy and complex and the events and stories do not neatly fit into one or other of these tidy patterns.

Africa was definitely not a place of wild people just waiting for Europeans to bring the enlightenment and civilisation. But also, Western medicine made a huge impact in keeping many who would otherwise have died alive. Does anyone really want us to go back to traditional medicine only? No antibiotics of any kind? No ultrasound equipment? No railroads to transport goods to and from the coast? No western educational methods? At all?

And was Africa really all that pristine before colonialism? What about the cannibalism in West Africa? What about the Arab slave trade predating Western colonisation? What about the continuous internecine tribal warfare? Was this really all that ideal?

I would suggest we need a new attempt at writing the history of Africa, being more honest than colonialists and Africanists would like us to be. A new position aiming to provide a holistic approach to our history, written perhaps by a more dispassionate party without a vested interest in defending a political ideology, that most governments get caught up in. We need a new revised perspective on African and South African history.

Obviously there is the risk, in South Africa particularly, that we are too close to recent events in our own history, such as the end of apartheid in 1994 to provide enough distance and perspective on such a new history of South Africa. However, what worries me even more is what the current generation of children is being taught in the meantime? Is the current accepted version of history merely a lurch in a new unbalanced direction with a distinctly Africanist, anti-colonial and anti-western perspective, which future generations will need to correct yet again.

Perhaps we are still too close to events and perhaps we shall have to wait, but I would hope there is a more neutral position emerging from contradictory voices, perhaps from outside our borders, that will help us gain perspective on African history, and South African history too, but taking an even longer view, looking further back and standing as “far away” from current events as possible to develop a third way – a more holistic perspective on our situation, our place in the world.

I for one, have become as tired of hearing the current politically correct version of our history as I was tired of hearing the previous one, and I would prefer that children and young people in our schools and colleges think much further than that. We owe it to ourselves and to our shared future. DM

Ian Illis is a DA MP.