I find myself in Australia on South Africa’s Heritage Day, pondering from afar what heritage means.
I thought of the land, soaked in the blood of its first peoples, littered with their bones, decomposing discards of European invasion. I sunk into the canyon of inequality tearing through the country.
I thought of my heritage as an Australian of European ancestry. Both Australian and South African histories are defined by the era of European expansion. But one country’s recollection is defined by accounts of colonialism and apartheid, while the other features stories of settlement and federation. The dichotomy is distinct.
The brutality of Australia’s past is a footnote in the victors’ history books. Indigenous nations continue to be marginalised in the land they inhabited long before whites tried to tame it. The crimes of the “pioneers” are shunted from mainstream culture or appropriated and misunderstood, like the mixed-race kids taken from their homes so the black could be bred out of them. Aboriginals are still not acknowledged in the constitution.
White settlement in South Africa was different, but its modern history was just as violent. The country should be proud that the brutality is at least open for all to see. Events such as the Sharpeville Massacre, June 16, 1976, the Third Force, and the Apartheid death squads are known to all — as is the arrest, torture and murder of Steve Biko.
On the surface of the country’s self-image are detailed narratives. There are the famous writings of Sol Plaatje after black sharecroppers were forced from white farms: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in his own land.”
Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment remains one of the defining events of South African history. No one can forget his inspiring words from the dock as he argued the case for the struggle and declared he was willing to die for a South Africa with equal opportunities for all.
Apartheid brutality was recorded in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It did not achieve the justice many wanted, but it made certain that no one could ever deny the web of horrors that the system created. The most horrendous narratives bled through the nation’s media so everybody could know the lost lives and broken families of the minority-ruled state.
These tragedies didn’t just cut down black families but impacted everyone across the Republic. All citizens benefit from understanding the horror.
Yet not everyone has been convinced. There are those amongst you who will continue to justify the violence of that system. For you, like many Australians I know who ignore or deny the atrocities committed against its indigenous, no narratives of pain will convince you that the system you supported was unjust. And your suspicions of the new history are understandable: you or your parents most likely experienced how history can be fictionalised by the state.
Your doubts are confirmed by our current despair. This year alone we’ve seen the Limpopo textbook saga, the Marikana massacre, the Mdluli affair, the rise — and fall — of the Spear, deaths at initiation schools, political assassinations, and a crisis with Cape Town gangs. But while each of these problems represents a failure of the current government, they all stem from colonial and apartheid systems.
What I find heartening on this Heritage Day is that so many people understand what’s going on. Across the country I’ve found people who understand the complexity of past and present problems and are determined to lead their communities to a better future. I see colleagues who continue to report on the tragedies that plague our society because they believe in the power of delivering information to the public. I find youth who want to address the past’s problems to confront the challenges of today. They understand the history of abuse and want to seek redress in a democratic dispensation.
It is these people, those that understand the brutality from which South Africa hails and the current challenges it faces, who will solve our current problems. They will tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality because they’ve been exposed to what happens when an illegitimate and murderous government takes control. They are able to forgive but they will not forget.
What is heritage? It is the history, rituals, language and beliefs we’ve been handed down. We’ve been blessed to have received rich accounts of the brutality of our history. Other societies haven’t been so lucky and they will tragically remain marginalised when we are able to use the past to create a better future. DM