What is the point of history? And why does it matter in South Africa? The narrative is clear: apartheid was bad. What more is there really to learn? Well, this is precisely the problem. The historian Tony Judt claimed that after the Second World War, there was a distinct shift in the way we have approached history.
Judt argued that the experience of the Holocaust, and indeed our own experience of apartheid, led people to believe that history should be taught as a series of lessons on what not to do. And most would agree that the brutality and complete inhumanity of these events meant that we have something to learn from them. But as Judt suggested, this formula has a distinct set of problems.
The idea that we should be learning from history what we should not do, he argued, causes a fundamental division between us and the past. That is, we have ultimately begun to look at history as a series of immoral and hateful events. Those people in the past were wrong, they were bad, they lacked understanding. The suggestion then is, we are not. We are clever. We understand what they did not. We are moral, they were depraved.
This works all very well when it comes to Hitler. It works less well when it comes to the likes of a Winston Churchill or a Mahatma Gandhi (who lived in South Africa for 20 years). Churchill had good qualities. He also had some shockingly bad ones. Racial prejudices and a real talent for the monumental stuff-up haunted his military and political life.
But if it hadn’t been for Churchill we might be living in a very different world. His good qualities may not have outweighed his bad ones, but they were certainly what the world needed. Somebody had to stand firm, somebody had to encourage the US to join the war, somebody had to inspire a nearly defeated nation. And it was these qualities that Churchill had in excess — and they are worth remembering.
And to be fair to the British people, they had the good sense to vote him out after he’d fulfilled his role. Britain needed a social and imperial reboot after World War 2 — something Churchill did not have in him to put into action.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Teaching SA Struggle history … at the height of the Struggle against apartheid
The debate about Churchill can rage on and it is in many ways worth having. People are complex, flawed, prejudiced, and swayed by mistaken and hateful ideas. That is the human condition. Gandhi for example wrote some frightfully awful things about black people in the 1890s.
John Dube, first president of what would become the ANC and a man who lived near to Gandhi for several years, had some pretty vile opinions about Indians. But did they both progress past this prejudice? Yes, to greater or lesser extents, they did. Should we only read about their mistakes and their prejudice? Are the lessons they offer us only negative? These attitudes were certainly part of their and our history, but do they cancel out all their other life-affirming feats?
Shallow reflection and memory
Judt suggested that the idea that the past was simply a place filled with mistakes, with evil and prejudices, is in some ways an attempt to exempt us from these mistakes. And, at its heart, it stops us from looking at ourselves reflectively. We too live in a flawed world and will no doubt be ourselves judged very badly.
But Judt’s point went further than this. It is not just that this way of learning history blinds us to our own faults, it also disorientates us and disconnects us from our past. As one of Judt’s great heroes, Albert Camus, stated: the feeling of absurdity, of suicidal emptiness, occurs when a human “is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land”.
The problem, as Judt conceived it, is that this approach to history, as a series of lessons about a terrible past, is that it has deprived us of memory. It has divorced us from a conception of ourselves and where we come from.
A sense of self relies as much on the present as it does on the past. And if the past is only filled with hateful, hurtful and obscene acts, a good sense of self is very hard to accept. History, or certainly the way history used to be taught, contains within it an explanation of who we are. It can also offer us a source of hope, understanding and confidence.
To learn that Gandhi, whose quite extraordinary experiments with passive resistance took place on our soil, was just a grotesque racist is not only skewing history, but also denying us a sense of a national narrative. A sense that we are not only capable of facing up to the horrors of prejudice, but that we have made a unique contribution to the world.
As the philosopher RG Collingwood suggested, stories of the past can evoke in us an “emotional state of willingness to bear” the present instability with “fortitude and hope”.
Of course, many might say that history of this kind is simply propaganda. And it is true that history is at least in some sense about truth. But truth is a nuanced fragile thing, and it is above all inclusive of good, bad and everything in between. Gandhi was prejudiced, he also was at one point a pro-imperialist and he took his vow of chastity to a deeply questionable extreme. (He slept naked in the presence of young women in order to prove to himself that he was indeed chaste). But he was also something else, somebody whose uniqueness and strength of will were utterly extraordinary.
It strikes me that today, in a world whose future looks bleak, we need a good sense of who we are and what we are capable of if we are to progress. The idea offered by the historian Kenneth Clark, that confidence in oneself and in one’s history is a fundamental basis for all working and decent societies, might not be far off the mark. DM
Mahatma Gandhi is featured in Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall.