Marianne Thamm

Owning history

2007-07-19 08:48

Marianne Thamm

There is an interesting observation about the contemporary German temperament that writer Adam Thorpe refers to in a recent article in Prospect Magazine.

Thorpe reports on a conversation with a French guesthouse manager about the difference between British and German tourists to the region. The two seem to have swapped national characteristics, writes Thorpe, with the English being "arrogant and rude while the Germans are modest and polite".

The Frenchman suggests to Thorpe that perhaps it is because Germans not only have a sense of their history but that they are also embarrassed by it.

I was reminded of the statement this week while watching an instalment of the current affairs programme, Interface, on SABC3.

Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Russell Botman, recently appointed head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Professor Sipho Seepe and political analyst, Frederick van Zyl Slabbert were discussing issues of identity and affirmative action. As usual, viewers were encouraged to SMS opinions and a ribbon of comments began to scroll below the screen,

Soon a disturbing and all too familiar pattern emerged with many of the SMSes displaying a raw, tangible (albeit sloppily spelt and articulated) aggression and arrogance that clearly reflects an ongoing unwillingness to deal with and own up to our recent past.

The man not the ball

The same tone is mirrored in some of the comments that follow Max du Preez's column, The Price of Reconciliation, published on News24 earlier this month.

Rather than displaying a willingness to engage with and debate the pertinent issues Max raises, some of the attacks are highly personal and display a disturbing and troubling ignorance.

Anyone who dares, even in the most reasoned and compassionate of tones, to reflect on our recent past is attacked, vilified, slandered and threatened.

There is no shame about this history and how this affected and continues to affect the lives of millions of fellow South Africans. In their blind lashing out, the blame is shifted, the buck passed and once again the fear and loathing they feel for themselves is transferred onto others.

Instead of directing their anger at the leaders who used, misled and betrayed a section of the population, they attack Max for highlighting the obvious.

They accuse him of "embracing the other side" or "no longer speaking for anyone" - something Du Preez has never claimed to do.

Vlok and Van der Merwe, on the other hand, often spoke and acted on behalf of others - all of them white people.

Did they speak for you?

The rule of law

If so, then you too must face up to what it was they stood for, fought to maintain and killed for. And if these people and others who committed crimes - including violent murders and attempted murder - are not charged and tried in a court of law, what future deterrent is there for those in power who might be tempted to commit the same offences against citizens?

This is not a witch hunt, it is not retribution, it is the rule of law.

Anyone who is vaguely aware of the history of humankind knows that traumatic pasts must be dealt with so that subsequent generations are not doomed, as philosopher George Santayana warned, to repeat it.

There are obviously South Africans who benefited from the past who clearly feel no embarrassment and whose sense is one of a history thwarted.

Perpetrators were provided with an opportunity to come forward, tell the truth and apply for amnesty. Many ignored the process and in so doing belittled the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the victims of apartheid and their families, and the vital role the commission was destined to play in beginning the healing deep psychic wounds.

The moral numbness and enormous devastation caused by Hitler's Nazi ideology continues - 60 years later - to manifest and have meaning in the lives of post-war Germans.

Today Germany is considered one of the most progressive countries in Europe and it is only because its citizens have had to face the horror of their past that they understand the cost of denying it.

Owning and understanding history, whatever it may be, lifts the weight of it from your soul and enables you to engage in the future with a renewed sense of vigour, commitment, certitude and belonging.

Send your comments to Marianne.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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