Chronicles of Cliff: To know history is to treasure who we are

2013-07-08 10:00

With Madiba ailing in ­hospital, we have an ­opportunity to revisit our not-too-distant past, to appreciate, in a more objective way, South African history in the turbulent 1990s.

The very real tension and fear of that era has slipped into our collective memory, and we can at last see just how remarkable our transition to democracy really was.

While we’re all thinking about the great Nelson Mandela, we can relate to our nation’s rebirth with an appreciation that only distance and the ­passage of time can bring.

I love history. It was the only ­subject we did at school that taught me anything about how human ­beings behave.

If that history ­involves your ancestors, your culture or your land, it can be even more compelling.

Unfortunately, too few pupils want to study history and too few want to read the stories of real people.

It seems easier to watch a soapie – or Hollywood nonsense about a superhero – than to examine the contributions of so many men and women who forged our nation from shame, violence, dust and segregation. Those are real superheroes.

Many of us recall Codesa, the multiparty negotiating forum, but have forgotten that ridiculous AWB attack on the Kempton Park World Trade Centre in armoured vehicles.

We may have a vague recollection of the powerfully moving Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the cold narration of Craig Williamson’s testimony and his plan to murder Ruth First are worth revisiting.

We may remember that fateful day when Chris Hani was gunned down, but if we watch the newsreels today, we can identify the face of a tracksuited, shattered Tokyo Sexwale on the scene. And a Madiba so sombre at the funeral it looked as if he might burst into tears as he threw that single red rose on the coffin.

It is worth evaluating just how ­duplicitous the IFP were in the run-up to the 1994 election, since we see them now only as a mostly ineffectual minority party.

It is also no small part of the story that the ­National Party’s nuclear arsenal was dismantled in the run-up to the unbanning of the ANC and the ­initiation of dialogue.

We forget so much and display such ingratitude for the journey our nation has taken.

History can show us how triumphant the South African spirit is at its best. We need to remind ­ourselves of how we got to this ­juncture and relight some fires with that knowledge.

While we wait with bated breath for news on Tata, we must spend a little time familiarising ourselves with the role he and so many others played in a national history that was to become an inspiration to the world.

It is not good enough, and we cheapen the satisfaction available to the researcher, by referring only to a nebulous ­understanding of the past.

To make that experience real, to enhance it by degrees, we must reread, remind and revisit the details of our ­country’s story.

Mac Maharaj, now so often ­maligned for being the president’s spokesperson and the source of all our news on Madiba, knew how important history was.

That’s why he smuggled Long Walk To Freedom out of Robben Island on bits of paper in order to reconstruct it so that we could read Madiba’s story today.

While we’re so busy thinking about toilets in the Western Cape, Nkandla and US President Barack Obama, we might make time to ­reflect on the road already travelled.

Going back down that track is not only an escape from mundane ­modernity, but a chance for each of us to observe our own evolution and treasure our own place in time.

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