Defend Truth

Opinionista

What makes someone worth remembering, and who gets to choose?

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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 Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa and ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ (both Penguin Random House). Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Some people manage to transcend the politics of their time. They cut through the noise and live remarkable lives that can teach us all a thing or two about being human.

History, it is often said, is written by the victors. This means that the losers don’t usually get much of a mention… Until a political upheaval comes along, and the roles of victor and villain are reversed.

South Africa is a classic example. The decision to name William Nicol Drive after a founder of the Broederbond who wrote a book justifying apartheid on religious lines was deeply political. The decision to rename the road Winnie Mandela Drive after a complicated and dividing figure was equally political.

This writing and rewriting of history makes it hard to know which “heroes” to trust, and it probably puts some people off studying history. (Please don’t fall into that trap.) The good news is that some people manage to transcend the politics of their time. To cut through the noise and live remarkable lives that can teach us all a thing or two about being human.

We’ve just written a book called Legends that contains short biographies of a dozen people who, in our opinion, changed South Africa for the better. The line-up includes men and women of all races, creeds and eras, starting with King Moshoeshoe (born in the 1700s) and ending with Thuli Madonsela, the book’s only living legend.

Choosing who to include was a painstaking process. More than 50 people made the shortlist and we had to leave some of them out for purely practical reasons. (We now have some empathy for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber!) Desmond Tutu isn’t in the book because we want him to be the poster boy of the sequel. Walter Sisulu was cut because his story would have too many overlaps with Nelson Mandela’s. Etcetera, etcetera.

While we like to believe that the men and women we have chosen to put on a pedestal are people all South Africans can get behind, this is clearly a misguided notion.

We’re not saying the people who made the cut are the 12 greatest people ever to grace South African shores. We don’t agree with everything they did. And we’re certainly not suggesting they were saints. But we are happy with our choices and prepared to justify them to detractors.

A couple of nights ago at a launch event in Cape Town, we had to do just that. A gentleman stood up and accused us of including “so many politicians” in our book and “not a single industrialist”. He argued that industrialists had made this country great by building the railways, the electricity grid and the steel industry, and promised to send us a “long list” of people to include in our next book.

Our argument (and things did get a little heated) was that the history of labour in South Africa – slavery, migrant labour, colour bars, pass laws – made us uncomfortable about highlighting the people who directed this exploitation. And we urged him to write his own book. (If you are reading this, sir, we must add that we have done some further research and Hendrik van der Bijl does seem to have done some decent stuff.)

Scenes like this, while slightly awkward, are par for the course. While we like to believe that the men and women we have chosen to put on a pedestal are people all South Africans can get behind, this is clearly a misguided notion. Whether we like it or not, our selection says a lot about who we are and what we value in society. And we’re just going to have to get used to that.

Some people will be offended to know that we have included Gandhi in the book. Gandhi did, at one point in his life, support British Imperialism and made some startlingly racist comments. But he progressed past this thinking. He was also racially abused by both white and black people but he sought out both in attempts to change their minds.

Two things that all 12 people in Legends shared are a willingness to listen to those with different beliefs to theirs, and the ideological flexibility to reform their positions over time.

Eugene Marais, a lifelong morphine addict with some rather jumbled political views, might also seem like a curious choice. But his fearless (and funny) muckraking journalism, his groundbreaking observations of baboons and termites, and his skill as a poet make him an undisputed legend in our eyes.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The making of Cyclone Thuli – the story of a Public Protector and a living legend

Even people like Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela have their detractors. But they were two of the first names on our list, and we’re sticking with them.

By chronicling these 12 remarkable lives we have made a statement about the bits of our past that we think are worth celebrating – and the kind of present and future we would like for our country. We know people will disagree with our choices, some vehemently so, but that’s just the way the pantheon crumbles.

Two things that all 12 people in Legends shared are a willingness to listen to those with different beliefs to theirs, and the ideological flexibility to reform their positions over time. (Two qualities in very short supply among our current leaders.) It is in this spirit that we welcome comments on our inclusions and omissions. DM

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  • mike muller says:

    Funny, I also looked for van der Bijl and found he was only in the ‘didn’t make it’ list because the authors confessed not to didn’t know about him (which puts their SA history education in question).

    Which is a real pity because, across the political spectrum, from SACP through to ANC, IFP and VryheidsFront, van der Bijl is recognised as the technocrat who helped some of the more talented politicians of the 20th century to build an (admittedly partial and distorted) developmental state. (He’s turning in his grave at the moment looking at teh fate of his ESCOM creation) and many thoughtful commentators quietly lament the absence of someone like him in 2023 South Africa).

    He was also distinguished by his training in the physical sciences which helped him to distinguish between practical realities and political fantasy …. another set of qualities sorely lacking on all sides in Azania/Mzansi today

  • Johan van der Watt says:

    I must admit that getting my hands on your book (as well as Rogues’ Gallery) only recently may render this comment simply late, but I nevertheless feel compelled to express the immense effect it has on me.
    As an Afrikaans-speaking South African, I found it particularly good to read. Funny that how Rogues’ Gallery, supposedly the more negative of the two books had me in stitches a lot of the time whilst reading it, whereas Legends, the more positive one resulted in a mixed bunch of feelings – from rather extreme anger – not towards the authors, but towards my own people, my forebears for their deceit and lies, to extreme sadness to the point where I was quite literally crying; crying in shame – again at what my own people did to the majority of South Africans.
    I am ashamed how they have raped history and shoved lies and distortions down my throat at school in the 70’s and 80’s – no bloody wonder I hated history!
    In the late 80’s I dropped my studies because I was forced to attend a Broederbond university and once I realised how I had been lied to, I literally fled the Free State and moved to Cape Town where I refused to speak Afrikaans for at least 8-9 years.
    I have since developed a genuine interest in history, or rather, finding the truth, which means reading as widely as possible to be able to develop a proper opinion on matters historical, and now I just can’t get enough!
    Thank you Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall!
    Please have these books translated into Afrikaans?

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