Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. A rugged jewel of endless crystal seas, vertiginous hills, plump olives and grapes, snow-capped mountains, year-round sunshine, heartwarming food and passionate people. And yet, in a country struggling with enormous debt, ballooning unemployment, political and social unrest and a bloated bureaucracy (sound familiar?), it is a shining beacon of hope.
Its lesson is, very simply stated, “History does not have to dictate the present, but no one will rescue us from our past.”
Unemployment on Crete is 4%, while in the rest of Greece it is 25%. Since 2010 they have had a degree of redefined and increased autonomy from central government in Athens and EU control in Brussels. Like South Africa, the two great drivers of prosperity in Crete are agriculture and tourism, and like South Africa their infrastructure is in urgent need of upgrade and development.
And historically? The centuries of brutal suppression, colonisation, invasion, grinding poverty that Crete has undergone make our three-century struggle to gain democracy seem relatively puny.
So here is Cretan history – stripped to the barest of bones. If you read this, try to feel the centuries of slaughter, dislocation, and horror that these dry facts cannot convey:
I write this long (amateur historian’s) list to give a young country like South Africa some perspective on how long subjugation, colonialism, genocide and brutality can dominate a nation: more than 2000 years. And yet Crete is flourishing. So what lessons can we take away from Crete?
In South Africa 150 years ago, the colonising powers were at war with each other. Obviously what follows is a vast over-simplification but in essence Boer (since Afrikaans was not yet a language or a nation), British, Zulu, Xhosa made war on each other, on the Khoi, the San, the Tswana, the Sotho, the Matabele etc. There followed a century of political turmoil, apartheid, virulent racism, conflict and a vast division being sown into the national psyche. Then came the miracle of 1994. And yet like Greece we are debt-ridden, saddled with a bloated bureaucracy, and facing a future of deep uncertainty.
So what has Crete got right, that we are still struggling with? On a psychological level, despite a deep sense of national identity and “tribal” pride they have decided that history is just that. It is done. It is past. Somehow they have decided to forgive the most recent and most brutal invasion. Crete’s main trading partner is Germany. The Germans who were slaughtering their grand-parents in a racist, cold-blooded, brutal invasion now send their grandchildren to the shops to buy Cretan olive oil and tomatoes. These same grandchildren now spend billions of Euros annually, enjoying the sun and sea and history that Crete offers. (To be honest, I don’t think thousands of Turkish tourists would be welcomed, though. Although Muslim Moroccans are welcome, they come to earn Euros as labourers.)
And everyone in Crete works. Unlike much of the Greek mainland, there is no expectation that anyone else is going to rescue them, not the government, not the International Monetary Fund, not Nato, not the EU. Their greatest strength is a sense of self-determination, which is the bedrock of democracy.
And in South Africa we have everything they have and more. Thousands of kilometres of glorious beaches, an agricultural potential that if proactively managed would, using intensively managed grazing and cover cropping, turn the desperation of our former homelands into havens of production and prosperity. Our landscapes are more astounding, our mineral wealth is unparalleled, our infrastructure is better, and our people are as warm and smart and as hungry for security as the Cretans. The diversity of our cultures gives us the advantage of an energy and vibrancy that is life-affirming.
But they have a determination. No one would rescue them – so they rescued themselves. And they knew that to look back would mean that they could not find a road forward. In Crete, nothing is forgotten, not one of those brutal occupations and colonisations is unacknowledged or unrecorded, or unlamented. But they are history. And the only way to overcome history is to move forward.
Somehow we all have to find the determination – no one is going to rescue us, we are all we have.
So let us be like Cretans, dirty in our fields, delighting that we can share our country, and every day moving forward. Arguing, debating, disagreeing, voting – but moving forward, ever forward – like a relentless Cretan. DM