SA’s past has shaped all of us

2014-04-09 00:00

APRIL 6 was the 362nd anniversary of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape, and of the founding of our mother city, Cape Town.

There were, of course, no celebrations because hardly anybody wants to commemorate any aspect of our “colonial” past. The predominant attitude is the South African version of Malcolm X’s famous comment: “Our ancestors weren’t pilgrims. They didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock was landed on them.”

For many black South Africans, April 6 is viewed as the commencement of what the ANC calls “the national grievance arising from colonial relations”. They regard it as the beginning of black dispossession. The ANC’s 2007 draft policy on the Expropriation Bill commenced with the following quote: “In April 1660 after the war, he [Autshumato — or Harry the Strandloper] was brought back for peace negotiations. During those negotiations, Van Riebeeck told Autshumato that not enough grazing land was available for the cattle of both the colony and the Khoi-Khoi. Autshmato then asked Van Riebeeck: ‘If the country is too small, who has the greater right, the true owner or the foreign intruder?’.”

Our subsequent history is etched deeply into the collective consciousness of many black South Africans. They recall the nine wars of the Axe that were fought with desperate bitterness during the 19th century between the Xhosa and the British. They remember the Zulu War and the defeat of King Cetshwayo at the battle of Ulundi in 1879. And then they remember the Land Act of 1913, and 80 years of deprivation and subjugation, culminating in 46 years of apartheid and National Party government.

These are intense memories smouldering in the hearts of generation after generation of black South Africans. They lie at the core of the ANC’s ideology of the National Democratic Revolution. The NDR’s goal is “... the resolution of the antagonistic contradictions between the oppressed majority and their oppressors; as well as the resolution of the national grievance arising from the colonial relations”.

The elimination of what the ANC calls “apartheid property relations” is at the centre of the NDR’s “programme for national emancipation”. According to the ANC’s strategy and tactics documents “this requires the deracialisation of ownership and control of wealth, including land; equity and affirmative action in the provision of skills and access to positions of management”.

So the process that began on April 6, 1652, still reverberates at the heart of ANC policy today. It is the mainspring of the ANC’s policies of land reform, affirmative action, cadre deployment, BBBEE and demographic representivity. These policies are becoming more racially aggressive and divisive. As President Jacob Zuma warned darkly on January 20, the ANC plans to “intensify the implementation of affirmative-action policies in order to deepen reconciliation and social cohesion in our country”. He said that “after the elections, the country will enter a new radical phase in which we shall implement socioeconomic transformation policies and programmes that will meaningfully address poverty, unemployment and inequality”.

He added that “we have achieved political freedom, now we must achieve economic freedom, and ensure that the ownership, management and control of the economy is deracialised further”.

However, all this is based on a one-sided and deeply flawed interpretation of history. The fact is that April 6, 1652 — for better or worse — signalled the beginning of South Africa’s integration into the broader world. It started the process of development that has made us the richest and most advanced country on the continent. The role of the British during the 19th and early 20th centuries in conquering the three dominant peoples of the sub-continent — the Xhosas, the Zulus and the Afrikaners — opened the way to the union of the significant territories of southern Africa. Without this part of our history, there would be no South Africa as we know it today. Without the discovery of diamonds and gold during the 19th century, and our industrial development during the 20th century, South Africa would be a pastoralist backwater.

Our greatest achievement as a people was that for a few years at the beginning of the nineties we were able to overcome our deeply divided history — we were able to reach out to one another as South Africans and establish our remarkable non-racial democracy. The Preamble to our Constitution called on us not only “to honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land” but “to respect those who have worked to build and develop our country”.

Now, 20 years later, history is being used again to divide us. As George Orwell said: “Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future.” We South Africans should not concede control of our history to anyone. It belongs to us all, and should be celebrated by us all, including April 6. This is not because we approve or disapprove of the events involved, but because they have made us who we are.

• Dave Steward is executive director of the F.W. de Klerk Foundation.

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