SA’s history has proven to be less about the past

2011-12-31 00:00

THE United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17) held at the ICC in Durban from November 26 to December 9 (but running over until December 11) was a total immersion experience.

Quite apart from the issues around global warming and climate change that informed the negotiations, what really struck me was seeing this vision of world governance — the United Nations — in action as 194 countries plus the European Union all sat down together to try and agree on something.

Sure, the “Durban package” wasn’t perfect. And I never quite bought COP president’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane admonition in urging delegates to sign up to it: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. Still, it would look great on a T-shirt and I’m surprised it didn’t get more mileage.

I came away from COP17 humbled by the sheer awesomeness of the project — the concept of the United Nations — and the fear it will never be fully realised, human nature being what it is.

Unlike COP17, it didn’t have 30 000 delegates or 1 400 journalists covering, it but the 23rd Biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society held in Durban and titled “The Past and its Possibilities: Perspectives of Southern Africa” was another exhilarating, exhausting ride. In three days over 100 academics — many of them post-graduate students — presented well over 150 papers, keynote addresses and various panel discussions.

Subject matter ranged over questions of identity, archives, marriage, missionaries, disease, gender, conservation, the Cold War, accounting and biography — there was even the launch of two landmark books, the long-awaited The First President: A life of John Dube by Heather Hughes and Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual by Hlonipha Mokoena. Fuze is from Pietermaritzburg.

History is popularly understood to be about the past, but the word “possibilities” in the conference’s title suggested the opposite and I don’t think there was one paper presented that didn’t cast a light on South Africa present and hint at possible futures. What was on offer was both enlightening and challenging, but I could not deny the immense sadness that enveloped me. There comes a point when you have to face the fact that South African history is relentlessly sad.

Even sadder, having survived one nationalist version of our history (courtesy of the Nationalist Party) we are now getting a new nationalist version (courtesy of the African National Congress) foisted on us. Conferences such as this are a necessary challenge to such political propaganda.

Still on a historical tack, I continue to be moved by Chérif Keita’s quest to unravel the history of the Dube family. For over a decade Keita has been exploring the life of John Langalibalele Dube, first president of the ANC, creator of the Ohlange Institute at Inanda and founder of the newspaper Ilanga lase Natal.

In what can only be called a labour of love, Keita has made two films in order to share his findings with a wider audience: the award-winning Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube that linked the story of Inanda to Dube’s education in the U.S. at Oberlin College, Ohio, andCemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, detailing the previously untold story of the American missionary, Reverend William Wilcox, under whose wing Dube first went to the U.S.

In 2007 Keita organised for the Wilcox descendants to visit South Africa and meet the Dube family. He’s now working on a film about the life of Dube’s first wife, Nokutela, and planning a national tribute to her to coincide with next year’s Womens’ Month in August.

Keita is a professor of French and Francophone African and Caribbean literatures at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, in the U.S., and an authority on the music of his native country, Mali. There is a huge irony here — that it takes a Malian living in the U.S. to tell us such South African stories.

Another irony: the first biography of Albert Luthuli was published this year, 44 years after his death in 1967, and it was written by an American, Scott Couper. To add outrage to irony, the Luthuli Museum in Groutville refuses to stock Couper’s Albert Luthuli — Bound by Faith because it doesn’t conform to the ANC’s view of history. Don’t tell me history is something to do with the past.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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