Dashiki Dialogues: Van Riebeeck’s still very much alive

2011-06-03 14:13

So this past week I was on a street corner arguing that studying history is as sexy as maths, and as important as learning science.

I was up against three boys who run a sweets and loose cigarette stall near my mother’s house in the township. You see, the boys weren’t trying to hear me.

To them, success or progress is wrapped up with how fast they can get a job. And how fast their bank accounts can balloon.

Now that’s the ultimate trophy! So history as a field of study doesn’t resonate with their pursuits.

The skinny one with a pair of black Chuck Taylor’s was cocky: “There’s a reason why it’s in the past, man. That stuff is as dead as Jan Van Riebeeck.”

The whole thing had me thinking: to fast-track Madiba’s dream, South Africa has created a generation without memory.

 In the process, studying history became stigmatised, because ours is particularly bloody and painful.

But I argued that there’s a need to deploy patriotic interests to the process of making money and the direction of its agency.

Hence, a historical awareness is useful in that regard: people must know why certain national ideas are priorities.

But perhaps history and the humanities in general have been their own enemies.

In academia, for instance, as Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani observed: “The dominant paradigms are products not of Africa’s own experience but of a Western experience . . . and are interested in promoting a specific Western history concerned in large part with praising the virtues of the European enlightenment.”

Further, their focus expands to other parts of the world for the most part to extend the scope of the West’s experience.

But there’s nothing wrong with reading the world from a European perspective.

The problem is, as Mamdani puts it, if the enlightenment is said to be an exclusively European phenomenon, then the story of the enlighten-­ ment is one that excludes Africa as it does the rest of the world.

Hence, the whole gamut of study remains intellectually unattractive, irrelevant and generally un-empowering to the boys on my street corner.

As my encounter with the boys was being wrapped up I realised that we had framed our questions wrongly.

The study of history, maths and science should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

In fact, a progressive Dashiki Dialogue should let us combine them in the triangulated space of learning, because Van Riebeeck is still very much alive.

Otherwise, why are these boys in the township and not on a farm somewhere? 

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