Defend Truth


No wonder Jan van Riebeeck is more famous than war hero and anti-apartheid activist Sailor Malan


Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House).

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.

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.

Airbrushing history

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bruce Q says:

    Beautiful article. Thank you.
    I was brought up and educated in the apartheid era and yes, my history lessons were boring indeed.
    There is so much we can learn from a true reflection of our history.
    Please push forward this agenda.
    The more we can learn about our “real” history, the more we will see that South Africans of all colours and backgrounds have more that connects us than keeps us apart.
    Oh, that our politicians could actually read.

  • magdawallace1 says:

    thank you for this article . i hope it will be read by many

  • nikimoore007 says:

    So please educate us. Why not write a weekly column for Daily Maverick, in which you introduce us to the bits of history that have been airbrushed out? And tell us where to go to read further?
    A good place to start, for a lot of modern history, is TV Bulpin’s Discovering Southern Africa – completely out of date but still compelling reading – which gives some fascinating history.
    There are also Chris and Julienne Marais’ fascinating stories – our history written by flashes of lightning.
    It’s all there – we just need to track it down.

    • LOUISE NIEHAUS says:

      Agreed – a weekly column it should be.

    • Susan Keegan says:

      More please…
      The Readers Digest Illustrated History of SA is a great introduction to our history. Our of print, but you can find copies in second hand shops. We use this book to teach history at The Vine School in Lansdowne. The best way to make sure young people grow up to enjoy history is to make sure the it’s well told, detailed and interesting – not shallow propaganda.

  • Max Ozinsky says:

    Instead of attempting to write an inclusive history you descend into pathetic blame game against the ANC. The Torch Commando was a broad front including liberal, radicals and communists. Many white communists were leaders of the Torch Commando. Fred Carneson springs to mind, he was the national organiser. You don’t mention him (and the many others) because of a shallow approach to writing history underpinned by trying to turn it into white liberal fairy tales. I come from a background of learning history to understand how to fight apartheid. I learnt about the Torch Commando and Sailor Malan from ANC supporters and histories in the 1980s. In those days ‘liberals’ did not mention it because it showed that communists and liberals could work together and they did not want to do that at the time. If you think something is not in “histories”, write something positive, rather trying to sell your books by attacking others on flimsy grounds.

    • Peter Slingsby says:

      Considering what a disaster for South Africa that the ANC has become I am wondering if your horse is not a little too high …

      • Max Ozinsky says:

        You are just reinforcing my point. Because of problems with the ANC today you are saying we should rewrite history and only focus on white liberals and their complaints?

        • Peter Slingsby says:

          A typically narrow communist response both to Dall and myself – assuming we said and meant things that we did not say.

          • Robert Dempster Dempster says:

            This is exactly why history is so interesting and exciting. There are different interpretations of who did what in the past and the debates that arise reveal selective memory and personal bias in the interpretations. One has to read extensively and know the reliability of your sources to get anywhere near “the truth”.

    • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

      goodness dude, why so aggressive? Apartheid is gone, so what windmill are you chasing now? oh, and if you don’t agree with someone else’s view of history, why don’t you write your own book with the “truth”? we wate with bated breath.

  • Ulrike Hill says:

    Love this article. Like the author, I found history so boring at school and yet when I embarked on my tertiary education I found out a different side to South African history. In fact, I am now researching colonialism and Zulu nationalism and have discovered interesting information about our past.

  • Stuart Hulley-Miller says:

    What s great article and subject …. Sailor Malan, along with many others, deserves more recognition and discussion. Of your two reasons given, I agree with the second one wholeheartedly but cannot agree to the second. This, however, is irrelevant. The thrust of your story is what counts. I was always enthralled by African History. Born in SA in 1948 and Educated in SA for a few years and then in Rhodesia for the bulk of my education, school and otherwise. I had always delved into the veracity of our history.
    In 1988 I came across a book, The Illustrated History Of South Africa …. The Real Story, by Readers Digest. It is a good place to start looking for what really happened. This book was a revelation to me and totally changed my view on South African History and prompted a book buying frenzy that is still going on.
    I love African History and South Africa is one of the most fascinating of all.
    Jan Smuts is another under-acknowledged South African. His influence on South Africa and the World at large is unprecedented.
    Our people and our History are exceptionally interesting and not at all boring. Our past and present governments have made it so.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    A poignant comment – A corrupter in charge of SA from the start hundreds of years ago?

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Unfortunately, and as is well known “history is written by the victors!” Shakespeare for all his brilliant writing put across the political views of the victors in England at the time – note what he did to King Richard the Yorkist.

  • Bernhard Scheffler says:

    THIS STORY is pure fiction. I took History at school up to matric, and was never taight that Jan van Riebeeck “carried the torch of Western civilisation to this southern corner of Africa and founded a nation on a religious basis”. And the history taught at my school (in Stellenbosch) was rather interesting — not at all like Nick Dall claims here.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    It is not the history that was boring. I wrote matric in 1977 and had history as a subject at the insistence of my father. Simple reason, if you do not know history, the will make the same mistakes again and again.

    On top of it, I had a teacher (Mr Pienaar) that made the subject come alive. Virtually on a daily basis, he would take current affairs and linked them to SA history or European history and drew parallels. Far too often, he was able to name an incident out of the handbooks, that were taking place in our own life time. So, it is not apartheids fault, or our own history’s fault – maybe just the class of teacher.

    Bu then, I also came from a houshold that were swimming against the current for most of the time. My grandmother was one of the speakers at NP rallies in Northern Transvaal on many occasions before the 1948 election and my father a jailbird. Spent time on death row at the Old Fort (now Constitution Hill) and nearly 3 years in Koffie Fontein. The current crowd do not acknowledge that there were political prisoners at the Old Fort before Mandela.

    So, History is like beauty – in the the eyes of the beholder and of course, much depends on why history is studied.

  • Shayne Ramsay says:

    So can you recommend an excellent book on the real history of South Africa?

  • Bernhard Scheffler says:

    This story is FICTION, not history. John Fairbairn & Thomas Pringle were dedicated campaigners (at great personal cost, against then governor Lord Charles Somerset …) for press freedom, not against apartheid. They chose to close their publications rather than submit to government censorship.

  • Viv Hart says:

    History has fascinated me since my schooldays, I think we started in Std 3 – Grade 5 – and I continued to my 3rd year at Stellenbosch Uni. And NO, it was NEVER boring, at 81, it still interests me. It all just depends where you get your information. I enjoyed Lawrence Green’s books, but had to read them with a pinch of salt, as he was not always accurate. Thank you for the article.

  • James Webster says:

    What is always amazing is that when the woke lefties are spinning their lived narrative it’s always the evil whites that are alone to blame, whereas anyone with even a modicum of wisdom knows that there are always two sides to every story. Perhaps the reason “old Jan” distrusted the locals was because the locals were untrustworthy, why refuse to even consider the obvious ? There is evidence to suggest local cultures ( both then and now ) in Southern Africa are not advocates for truth and honesty at any cost, there were no cherry trees chopped down by Southern Africans. Goodness knows they certainly never had any Judeo-Christian morals inculcated into them, this much is apparent from the culture that has become so deeply engrained in the ANC, its government and its supporters. This culture is postulated on lies, calumny, deception and corruption so telling whoppers in the history curriculum ought to be expected.

  • Colin Braude says:

    Like the author, I found SA history “great drek”. Then my mother introduced me to “The Outlanders” by Bob Crisp, who wrote SA history like a novel. (Rather than learn from history, Mashaba and others are resuscitating the “Uitlander” issue). After that, all SA history became interesting.

    Jan van Riebeeck, contrary to the ANC narrative, was not a settler (he left as soon as his term was over) and introduced slaves (from the East) and state monopoly. He may have introduced state capture, but Cecil Rhodes, robber baron and premier of the Cape, perfected it and created one of the world’s “best” monopolies although beaten by the DEIC.

    Saul Solomon, St Helena born and founder of Old Mutual and the Cape Argus, became a MP in the Cape Parliament. Faced with a walkout before his speech urging non-racism, remarked “I would rather address empty benches than empty minds!”

    Our history is certainly not boring — and the ANC, ever reprising the Nats, airbrush it just as fervently.

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