Matthew Blackman and I recently gave a talk at a school history club. The prevailing opinion – among kids who’d chosen to take history for matric and to attend our talk – was that South African history is boring.
This is by no means a judgement on those high school kids. When I was at school 25 years ago, I also thought South African history was boring. So boring in fact that I opted not to do history for matric.
But why is it that generations of high school history students would rather learn about World War 2 and the French Revolution (or for that matter play Minecraft) than engage with our own fascinating past? A past littered with prophets, protests, prostitutes and pyromaniacs …
I think there are two main reasons. One is what I’ll call the widespread South African inferiority complex. With the exception of a few niche specialisms (rugby, braaiing, pothole dodging) we don’t seem to think we’re worthy of competing on the world stage. So much so that we’re genuinely surprised when a South African wins the Nobel Prize for Literature or is chosen to host The Daily Show.
The other really important reason is that for as long as most of us can remember, the South African history taught in our schools has been boring. History, of course, is written by the victors and the apartheid history curriculum was more fiction than fact. And not very good fiction either.
Generations of South Africans were taught that Jan van Riebeeck, in the words of DF Malan, “carried the torch of Western civilisation to this southern corner of Africa and founded a nation on a religious basis”.
The truth, as is often the case in our history, is much more interesting. Before establishing a presence at the Cape, the Dutch East India Company had been advised to appoint “a good commander who treats the indigenous people politely and who pays for everything that is bartered from them, and to treat some of them with a bellyful of food.”
Instead, they appointed Van Riebeeck, who had been found guilty of corruption in the East. The Cape may have been his last chance saloon, but gratitude didn’t come naturally to old Jan. He was deeply unhappy during his 10 years here and he took his frustrations out on the locals.
As Professor Gerald Groenewald explains: “From day one, he had a negative view of the KhoeKhoe. He distrusted them very much and his ill relationship with the KhoeKhoe led to the first KhoeKhoe-Dutch War of 1658–59.” Far from founding our nation “on a religious basis”, JVR ensured that our society would be built atop a foundation of violence.
In 1961, the newly established Republic of South African took the mythmaking to the next level when it introduced the rand as the currency of the land. It’s hardly surprising that Verwoerd and Co chose to adorn the new banknotes with JVR’s mug. But did you know that the ou on the old SA banknotes was actually Bartolomeus Vermuyden, a 17th-century Johnny Depp who never set foot in Mzansi? Jan was considered too fugly, so they secretly found a stunt double.
There are loads of other examples of this kind of airbrushing. When the World War 2 fighter ace and anti-apartheid activist Sailor Malan died from Parkinson’s in 1963 (the 60th anniversary of his death was on Sunday, 17 September 2023), the apartheid government banned members of the South African military from attending the funeral in uniform. They censored the newspaper obituaries and, in the decades that followed, wrote Sailor out of the history books.
This explains why you’ve probably never heard of Sailor Malan, one of 12 upstanding people in our newest book Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better. From humble beginnings as a Voor-Paardeberg farm boy, Sailor went on to have two separate claims to being one of South Africa’s most famous sons.
He wasn’t just the most famous and successful fighting ace – of any nationality – in the Battle of Britain. He also led the Torch Commando, a group of a quarter of a million (mostly) white South Africans in protest against the apartheid government.
Malan’s story is the complete antithesis of boring – but because it didn’t suit the apartheid narrative it was given the red pen treatment. The Nats were not the only ones to play the censorship game. The Torch Commando was – for a while at least – one of the most important anti-apartheid movements. But Sailor wasn’t radical enough for the ANC’s liking and, from the 1970s onwards, he was also written out of anti-apartheid histories.
Since 1994, the one-sidedness has continued. The ANC has chosen to lionise a few key figures in its history instead of allowing the more nuanced and fascinating truth of our country’s long and zigzagging path to democracy to be told.
And now that the ANC is fighting for survival in the present and the future, they’ve become even more careless about the past. Nelson Mandela was a remarkable human being who played a pivotal role in preventing a South African civil war. But the way he’s taught in schools is more religious education than history. (Little wonder, then, that Matthew’s niece thought the 12 Apostles were “Mandela’s friends”.)
What Richard Stengel refers to as the “Santa-Clausification of Mandela” has actually tarnished Madiba’s legacy. No one likes a protagonist who’s all good, and Mandela was the first to admit his many flaws.
As Tom Lodge wrote on Madiba’s 90th birthday: “Mandela’s iconography projects an ordinary man with ordinary weaknesses who was nevertheless capable of magnificent courage, compassionate generosity and, at certain key points, righteous acts. Identifying mistakes and blemishes hardly detracts from these noble capacities and actions – it only makes them more remarkable.”
Our history is not black and white and it never has been. John Fairbairn, a white Scottish male, brought multi-racial democracy to the Cape in 1854, but, like Sailor Malan, he has been entirely written out of our history.
Sol Plaatje’s name is occasionally mentioned by the ANC, but this remarkable Tswana linguist, novelist, educator and activist should be at least as well-known as Mandela. Olive Schreiner didn’t just write a bestselling international novel: she was also a global pioneer in the fight for equal rights for women and people of colour.
Instead of assuming that you know our country’s history (and that it is boring) I urge you to find out more about it. If you’re anything like me, once you start, you’ll find it hard to stop. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry. You’ll find yourself being overcome by immense pride and intense anger.
And, hopefully, you’ll start seeing your fellow South Africans in the context of our long – and continuing – fight for universal justice. DM