Guest Column

Epochs of our time

2017-06-25 06:03
The elevation of Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to the Union Buildings will signify the electorate’s embrace of youthful leadership and a rejection of old dead wood. Picture: Alan Murdoch

The elevation of Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to the Union Buildings will signify the electorate’s embrace of youthful leadership and a rejection of old dead wood. Picture: Alan Murdoch

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Brutus Malada

‘Men pass, epochs pass, but the future beckons!” said one Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr.

This is not the singer-cum-racist bigot of our time, Steve, but an intellectual, who his biographer, Alan Paton, would say, among his contemporaries, had no peer.

Of his intellectual depth, genius and brilliance, Hofmeyr, according to Paton, was at his time second only to Jan Smuts, despite his being almost 20 years younger than the internationally acclaimed philosopher-cum-statesman.

A liberal, a workaholic and an overachiever; he was until the fateful election of 1948, readily poised to be, as yet another biographer, Tom McDonald, thought of him, heir to Smuts.

But this article is not intended for a commemoration of Hofmeyr’s short life, but to reflect on the profundity of his statement and ponder what seems to be its deep meaning for the history unfolding before our eyes.

Hofmeyr’s statement is full of truth; for no right-thinking person can dispute the fact that men and epochs come and pass.

But beyond this truism we should also recognise the central role that man plays in shaping epochs; for man is not an innocent and passive observer of history, but an engineer of epochs that shape the future of a society.

Even as man is essentially a product of his environs, he is endowed with the unique ability of the mind to imagine and actively engineer a different reality from what is at his disposal.

Endowed with the mind, man is also capable of identifying the epochs of his time, seizing opportunity and shaping the future.

Historic epochs

What, exactly, do we mean by epochs? It is important to clarify this question, else we risk mistaking a single-day event that takes place in the life of a nation for an epoch.

The Oxford advanced dictionary defines epoch as “a period of time in history, especially one during which important events or changes happen”.

Therefore, a single-day event such as April 27 1994 or June 16 1976 may mark a climax in a nation’s trajectory, but such a day is not necessarily an epoch in itself.

It is rather the cumulative activities sustained over a period of time leading to and carried out beyond that eventful day that make an epoch.

Thus, by epochs we mean a period of sustained change in the trajectory of a nation which may be signified by a specific year.

Common in these historic epochs we will find a few characters that stand out, epitomising such epoch in the evolution of a society.

It is the significant role played by these characters in shaping that epoch that attracts the sagacious pen of historians to record their names in their hallowed books.

Similarly, the evolution of South Africa is a tale of historic epochs equally epitomised by characters whose deeds stood out to attract the attention of historians.

Even the “political disasters and economic windfalls” that respected economic historian CE de Kiewiet observed form the tapestry on whose canvas the trajectory of our country is written and have protagonists that epitomise them.

Thus, 1652 having marked the arrival of Europeans in South Africa, it is fitting to describe as epochal.

It was the first contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of South Africa.

And, even as he was not alone when he docked on our shores, Jan van Riebeeck is the character that epitomised that epoch.

The arrival of British settlers in 1820 was also a historic epoch.

It marked the escalation of colonialism in South Africa as the British were determined to expand their empire.

To understand who the protagonists were one goes no further than reading the history of Grahamstown and Somerset in Cape Town, respectively named after Colonel Graham and Lord Charles Somerset.

While the discoveries of diamonds in 1866 and gold in 1884 were the economic windfalls that changed the fortunes of our country, they also cast a spell on the lives of black people as they were pauperised through cheap labour.

The exploitative labour system that, to this day, condemns black people to the lower rungs of the economic chain is a legacy we inherited from the colonialism that Helen Zille had to be hauled over the coals to apologise for.

Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Beit and Barney Barnato are among the characters that epitomise that epoch in our history, despite the fact that there were hundreds of speculators and diggers who also flocked into Kimberley and Johannesburg following the discovery of our mineral resources.

There were many Boers who worked tirelessly towards the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, but Louis Botha and Jan Smuts would be remembered as the people who shaped the formation of that union.

DF Malan, John Foster and Hendrik Verwoerd were not the only architects of apartheid as institutionalised in 1948.

There were many apartheid bigots who are lucky that their deeds remain buried in the annals of history.

Similarly, there are many unsung heroes of the liberation movement who played a critical role alongside the Mandelas, Mbekis and Sisulus, who epitomised our 1994 moment.

History is, therefore, like a great theatre, on whose stage we are summoned to play our part and disappear once our role is done.

Like on a theatre stage, there are protagonists, cheerleaders and some are audience members.

The aforementioned people played their role and, as Hofmeyr reminds us, indeed man and epochs pass. What remains is the future that continues to beckon.

The future beckons

We, therefore, find ourselves having to answer the questions: What kind of epoch is this future that is beckoning going to bestow on our generation?

And who among us will be the characters that will epitomise such an epoch?

These questions are about whether, as a generation, we can recognise the responsibility history has bestowed upon us in the evolution of our society.

A careful observation of the unfolding events in our national politics suggests that we are indeed on the cusp of history and 2019 promises to mark that epoch.

That 2019 is likely to be the year in which the ANC loses national elections would mark the end of liberation politics in South Africa and usher in a different politics at two levels.

At the first level, henceforth, anyone trying to blackmail black people on the basis of struggle credentials would be irrelevant.

Parties would have to do more than invoke the memory of this or that hero from Mazimbu to win the hearts and minds of voters.

It would be the capabilities of a person, his or her vision for the country, rather than dancing and singing, that would win votes for a party. In short, 2019 may usher in an epoch of a politics of ideas.

Secondly, 2019 may also mark the end of gerontocracy – a leadership by old people.

If 2019 ushers in a coalition government between the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters, as many pundits have predicted, the elevation of Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to the Union Buildings will also signify the electorate’s embrace of youthful leadership and a rejection of old dead wood.

Thus, history will be kind to Maimane and Malema, and record them as the characters that epitomised a new epoch in the evolution of our society.

But even as we are optimistic about the possible epoch that 2019 represents, there is a daunting question we cannot ignore:

If the ANC loses, will it accept the outcome of an election and hand over power peacefully, or will it resist and throw the country into anarchy?

If anarchy reigns, 2019 will mark a different epoch and may throw our country on to a trajectory of the sort of negotiated political agreements that have characterised post-colonial societies in Africa.

This epoch and its characters, too, shall pass, but the future will continue to beckon.

Malada is a member of the Midrand Group

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Read more on:    da  |  eff  |  helen zille  |  mmusi mai­mane
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