Unlearning I: Selective History

I enjoyed history so much growing up. The stories of fearsome warriors, evil acts and human triumphs. I learned how separation, misinformation and propaganda (aka psychological warfare) were the tools of choice for evil regimes on the other side of the world. I never dreamed that these tools were still at work. Here and now.

Imagine my shock when I learned that through selective education and lies of omission that it was supposed to escape my notice that ground zero for some of most breathtaking human rights violations of the last century was my home country and continent.

Don’t get me wrong, I was taught about colonisers (not so much about colonisation but plenty about its more palatable fruit). Apartheid was taught in schools: the laws, the “dom pass” , the uprisings that resulted in public holidays, the walk to freedom, the end. Without the At home supplementation (the lived experiences of black people that lived beside me who lived through it), they could’ve had me convinced that a few evil, largely unnamed, white people made evil laws while most white people had no idea and now it was finished. You could forgive a young girl for wondering, given what we were taught, why our parents were still so angry about it. I mean “it’s over”. Isn’t it? There are whole entire Nobel Peace prizes involved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired a comission* and everything.

We were never taught about how well-organised, systematic and thoroughly researched Apartheid was. How it was possible to not only dehumanise a group of humans (which admittedly had been done before) but through learning from other oppressors mistakes, that the key was to have the humans themselves believe and reinforce it. For oppression to have legs (longevity), it has to be as reproducible psychologically as it physically. The Slavers taught them that. The real piece de resistance for Apartheid was that we never had to be relocated to foreign lands for isolation. We weren’t the minority, outnumbered on all sides. We were home and many.

Not only were we somehow able to be tricked out of our lands, associated wealth, freedoms and titles, we were collectively consigned to a portion of our country; forced to survive off the scraps of the education and health care systems, resources and infrastructure. Our intelligence was insulted by the dissolution of our mother tongues in formal education creating a precedent for the subjective measure of intelligence for generations to come. All while turning the cogs of the economy that demanded the Labour of our backs and the dissolution of family and culture: men and women were forced to leave their spouses and offspring in the Homelands and gained meager wages, communicable and/or occupational diseases for their troubles. Many never returned at all (migrant labour: read about it). A malevolent terrible terrible thing happened here.

Then one day when the civil war was sidestepped, the international sanctions lifted and the architects and beneficiaries of this vile cruel criminal system were forced publically to detail the extent of their depravity (then walk away unscathed and exonerated)*, the Rainbow Nation was coined and we were told to forgive. And “get over it” and “move on”. I think justice would have been a good start (Nuremberg trial anyone?). In rebuilding we forgot to tear some things down, thrown the whole system away. While little work was being done to fix large-scale systemic issues, free electricity was being promised (ignoring the fact that the grid was literally designed and built for a fraction of the population but that would catch up to us later *cough* loadshedding ) but nothing was being done to address the national psyche, to redress some lies that had been widely propagated and deeply internalised. And when we struggled to move on, we were convinced of our laziness: you’re free now (because saying it makes it so, everybody knows that).

History is important because it safeguards our humanity. We’re predictable but we can learn (we’re adaptable). Without hindsight, we are doomed to repeat ourselves. History’s predictive value is elevated by accuracy and this is how and where we fail. We can learn a great deal from evaluating how (and which) history is taught and who gets to write it.

For me, the theatre saved my life. This is why we. Need black nerds and why we need to tell our own stories. I had no idea on that night in my first year of university that my eighteen years old self was about to have her worldview abruptly tilted off its axis by a play. It was called Rewind: it was an audiovisual masterpiece complete with black and white slide-show visuals, a string quartet and live recordings of the TRC. A combination of prominent statesmen (from both “sides”, spies and freedom fighters and regular ordinary South Africans detailing how Apartheid changed their lives. Mothers who, at the crest of victory shared that they still don’t have bodies to bury. A letter bomb survivor musing out loud ‘what did the sender of the bomb tell his wife he’d done that day?’. I understood the burden of forgiveness and moving on was heavy and crippling and will never go away. Because now, almost 2 decades, the ordinary people that made a bloodless revolution possible will be instructed to move on anytime they mention that back is aching. Because forgiveness. There is something missing from the equation of truth equalling reconciliation and that thing is justice. The same TRC that PW Botha refused to attend. The one after which he went on record stating that he would not ask for forgiveness. I won’t lie I was devastated. I’d bought into the narrative of the bloodless revolution my entire life, the staggering achievement of peace through forgiveness, the cutesy Rainbow Nation. All of it. I felt like I had been lied to (I had been), disoriented and angry. I was never the same.

I only heard Stephen Bantu Biko’s name in school once. Conversely, the Holocaust was taught to me by a Jewish woman: the detail, the psychological and physical strategies that brought it about, the lives lost (in near exact numbers). It is enshrined in our collective history to safeguard against repeating such atrocities against human life. I never knew about King Leopold II of Belgium until I was an adult. Because (most) human life is sacred. Shaka Zulu was taught to me by a (brilliant) Afrikaans man. To his credit, he emphasised Shaka’s military brilliance and cunning diplomacy as heavily as his uncompromising and fearsome brutality. The incomparable Henry Cele and my grandmother filled out the rest of the backstory: the manipulation and betrayal by the missionaries, his psychological descent, a proper explanation of how one of the greatest military commanders alive ever met defeat (short answer: they brought guns to a knife fight, he really loved his mom, history rhymes see: Caesar). It was it all becoming very clear: victory is taught and written by the Victor. Omission is a tool as powerful as symbolism.

Freedom from the laws of Apartheid was a generational mandate. A word on Generational Mandates (because they’ll come up again) : I believe every generation has a mandate and are equipped for a time such as this. I also believe that in order to fulfil something as epic as a generational mandate, you have to see the trees not the leaves. Our forefathers fought and died for liberation. For laws and physical freedoms. To see their children go to school, become something more and walk down the street without imposed curfews, degrading identification documents and mortal fear. I don’t know about you but I’d say they succeeded. They couldn’t know or focus on what walking in those schools would be like, what would happen if the psychological chains weren’t broken and What prices we’d have to pay to be in those spaces. Trees not leaves.

Now, going into part two, think about how (or if) history remembers lives that aren’t deemed as worthy. Which lives make up the footnotes of history? Black child, you are on your own.

*The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): In the early years of our democracy(1995/6), witnesses, victims and perpetrators of gross human violations gave testimony (a portion of whic were selected for public hearings). The aim was to unearth, record and bear witness to the crimes that had befallen our people. It was meant to be restorative and the reason its not called a trial (despite its court-room nature) is because amnesty was granted to perpetrators in the name of reconciliation. Trees not leaves.

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