Max du Preez

Lack of knowledge about SA polarises its citizens

2015-02-03 08:50

Max du Preez

Two decades after we became a democracy, South Africans still snipe at each other across racial divides, blindly defending their "own" at the slightest provocation.

To opportunistic politicians, this is grist to the mill – exploiting the baser instincts of fear and resentment is a tried and tested way of covering up political weaknesses and mobilising people.

And yet, on a personal level – in the office environment, the neighbourhoods, factory floors, sports stadia, music festivals and pubs – black and white get on remarkably well.

For people from different cultures and backgrounds to misunderstand each other on occasion is not unusual or unique to our society. But it becomes a huge problem when we know so little about each other’s stories of origin – of how we came to be here; of how this nation was formed.

This lack of understanding was demonstrated very clearly by the angry debates following President Jacob Zuma's statement three weeks ago that Jan van Riebeek's arrival at the Cape in 1652 was the beginning of all South Africa’s problems. Many whites experienced this as a gross insult.

If Zuma simply meant that the arrival of white people on the southern tip of Africa had disrupted the natural development of the indigenous societies and started three centuries of dispossession and oppression, he would of course have been entirely correct.

Things got complicated

But if his statement implied (as many whites interpreted it) resentment at the presence of white citizens in South Africa today – that they’re really unwanted colonialists – it is a different matter.

For all their evil deeds, the Dutch did not initially intend to colonise South Africa. They merely wanted to establish a halfway refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company’s ships travelling to the East and back. They released some Company employees to establish farms for themselves to increase production of meat and vegetables, and that’s where things got complicated.

These “free burghers”, joined in the last decades of the 17th century by French Huguenots and German and Scandinavian settlers, quickly came to resent the Dutch authorities and, after 1806, the British colonial masters.

These burghers started losing all emotional and other ties to their countries of origin and viewed themselves as locals. A number of them married slaves or former slaves, even Khoikhoi women.

In 1820, the British settled some four thousand of their citizens in the Eastern Cape – the ancestors of most of today’s white English-speaking South Africans. Most of them also soon lost their ties with Britain and identified more with their new home.

The prime force behind Afrikaner nationalism was not an anti-black feeling, but hatred of the British, especially after the South African War of 1899 – 1901.

The purpose of this shorthand history lesson is to explain that white South Africans cannot simply be called “settlers” or “colonialists”, not even “colonialists of a special kind” in old ANC-speak.

Too many black citizens seem to think that South African history is more or less the same as that of other African states colonised by European powers in the 19th century.

Too many black intellectuals simply rely on the writings of French-African writers on colonialism, Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, to analyse our situation (the EFF says it believes in “Fanonism”).

No wonder so many black South Africans find it difficult to deal with the presence of whites with full citizenship in “liberated” South Africa.

White South Africans’ ignorance of history is as bad and dangerous. Many still believe in the old myths that the European settlers arrived on the southern tip at the same time as the black farming communities were moving into the country from further north; that these societies and the Khoisan were primitive tribes with no culture or spirituality; that the trauma of the Mfecane of the early 1800s left vast tracts of the interior unpopulated and thus available for occupation; and that most white farms were bought from or traded with traditional chiefs.

Too many whites still view the history of black South Africans through the lenses of racist and/or nationalist white historians. We brought you technology and advancement, they say, and what would you have been without that?

In denial

They are so blinded by these distortions and by the theme that Africa is a colossal failure on all fronts that they cannot fathom their black compatriots’ pride in their history and their African-ness. Afrikaners especially should have found it easier to understand how unsure and fragile emotions can be after a huge trauma and of generations of being told you’re inferior.

We Afrikaners still talk about the injustices of the British concentration camps of 115 years ago, but we want black people to stop talking about apartheid which ended 21 years ago?

Many whites are so in denial about the real nature and impact of white domination and apartheid over many generations that they struggle to comprehend black hurt and anger; they misunderstand Nelson Mandela’s grand reconciliation project to mean that the past should be buried and we should live as if South Africa had magically appeared from the skies in 1994; and that the imbalances and inequalities we experience now had no roots in the past.

This lack of knowledge and insight on both sides can only contribute to further alienation and polarisation during this time of political sturm und drang.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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