Prince Mashele

Beyond Bafana Bafana colours

2010-05-17 15:25

Writing only a few days before the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, many might wonder why this column is not written in Bafana Bafana colours. The column ignores Bafana Bafana not because they will not advance very far in the World Cup, but because there is a future beyond the passing soccer spectacle.

Now that the FIFA Soccer World Cup has shifted the attention of our collective mind from the mundane questions we grapple with daily, time may be ripe for us to entertain a subject some might consider philosophical: who qualifies, and what does it mean, to make history?

When Francis Fukuyama suggested that the fall of communism in Russia and the triumph of capitalism have brought the world to the end of history, there are those who reacted angrily, asking how dare does Fukuyama claim that history had ended. Of course, Fukuyama borrowed the Hegelian conception of history as a fundamental rivalry between contending ideas. Given the defeat of communism in its gigantic battle with capitalism, Fukuyama concluded that history had ipso facto come to an end.

According to the Hegelian conception, mere existence is not enough to qualify human beings as participants in the making of history. What counts is the role of human beings as agents in the battle of ideas. Therefore, it is mainly those who actively take part in determining the twists and turns of ideological battles that are able to secure space when the unforgetting pens of historians record the names of participants. Adam Smith’s neighbour may wonder why nothing is said of him when he ate bread from the same bakery that fed Smith. Equally so, Karl Marx’s homeboy might protest: why do history books omit me as if I did not share a village with Marx?  

Therefore, some among us might ask: will history not remember that I fathered and raised children? The well-off in our society might also wonder: will the pen of history not record the fact that I lived in a sumptuous mansion, or that I drove a big car? On their part, the stylish in our mist might convince themselves that history will be interested in the fact that they wore expensive Italian labels.

Nothing historic about raising children

To the fathers and mothers, we ought to ask: what is historic about fathering and raising children? If a statement were to be made that “fathers and mothers raise children”, would it still be necessary to single out Mr Mkhize or Mrs van Tonder as people who once raised children? Indeed, we all have a natural obligation to raise and love our children, but there is nothing historic about it. Animals, too, do raise their own children, yet only a defective mind would suggest that child-rearing animals are history makers.

Those who are concerned with sumptuous mansions, expensive cars and stylish labels must answer the question: is there a book that chronicles the labels worn by Oliver Tambo, Winston Churchill or Mau Zedong? A further question demands an answer: is Nelson Mandela so famous because he used to live in big house? Why is it that we know very little about tycoons who lived in the same period with Kwame Nkrumah?  

The questions we raise here may appear trivial, but they say a great deal about the worth of our lives. Those with a historic mind are conscious of the shortness of the lifespan of a human being. Indeed, many consider themselves lucky to reach eighty years in their lives, but this is a drop in the vast ocean of history. The description of the past five hundred years revolves around the five generations that have gone past; and the generations are defined on the basis of those who made a special mark. And thus will ours be described: the people who lived when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became the first democratically elected President of South Africa.

When the eye of history looks back, it does not see what everyone was doing. It is only interested in something spectacular or ground braking. If there is none, history does not hesitate to dismiss whole multitudes: the mad generation, the lost generation, etc. In this regard, whole people are lumped together and described through the use of universals:  generation, the people, society, etc.

Let us now return to our original question: who qualifies, and what does it mean, to make history?  As we have demonstrated, mere existence is not enough for a person to claim space in history books. It is also clear that the things that most of us take seriously dwindle into meaninglessness when historians take stock of the historical significance of epochs. He who makes history is he who is engaged in an activity that stands out in the lives of multitudes of people who are unable to rise above the many.

Worth remembering

In a word, those who make history ask themselves the question: long after my departure from planet earth, what is it that will make me worth remembering?

Now that we know that tycoons do not matter in the eyes of history, we need to ask: what is the historical worth of tycoons? Now that we know that those who wear expensive clothes are of no historic significance, the question follows: is an obsession with labels not a waste of valuable time? Now that we know that big cars are nothing in history, we must ask: why does the pride of people who drive big cars balloon?

Indeed, these are not matters whose significance can be penetrated by a mind that is preoccupied with Bafana Bafana colours. These are issues that trouble the thoughts of those who have a deeper appreciation of the future that lies beyond the passing spectacle of a FIFA Soccer World Cup. This, however, does not mean that our hosting of the World Cup is of no historical importance, or that we should not enjoy it.

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (www.politicsresearch.co.za) and a member of the Midrand Group

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