SA needs a Black History Month

2015-04-19 15:00

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Soon after its adoption in the US, Black History Month was regarded by many African-Americans with an ambivalence bordering on hostility.

This began to change only after the realisation that every February would see a gradual exposure of the full extent of the marginalisation and demonisation of black people in US history books.

Black History Month has meant a gradual undermining of the white myths that dominate American history.

US civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King Jr during a speech in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. He was engaged in a battle for voting rights. Picture: Horace Cort / AP Photo

Perhaps the persistence and thoroughgoing nature of white domination of history in South Africa – and government’s apparent inability to change that – places it in urgent need of a black history month.

The battle over the statues of Cecil John Rhodes and other colonial and apartheid symbols are in fact contests over history, which itself is a proxy in the war against white economic and academic privilege.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) will learn this soon enough, despite the decision to remove the Rhodes statue. Demands for transformation will only shift into higher gear.

The UCT establishment understood this perfectly when it ran off noted Ugandan Professor Mahmood Mamdani in the late 1990s for raising the question of how “to teach Africa in a post-apartheid academy”.

The claim by some that the struggle over statues misses the point couldn’t be further from the truth. They are the point – to the extent that they represent the growing demands from young black South Africans for a more authentic portrayal of their lives and aspirations.

In this, there is a diminishing class difference among young blacks, while racial solidarity is heightened. Therein lies the true danger to the status quo. The elite young seem more attuned to the politics of protest as practised in Marikana, and that coalition could be volcanic.

This younger generation seems to have made a decisive break with at least one important South African tradition observed across most racial and class distinctions: the idea that Africa is someplace else, and that an African is somebody else.

It is not at all unusual for older black South Africans to refer to Africans in the third person. This, no doubt, was the intended result of decades of white cultural, economic and educational domination.

This differentiation is in no small measure reflected in the deep currents of anti-African xenophobia in the African population.

Under apartheid, history teachers had two choices: the version of the Afrikaners – descendants of Germans, the Dutch and French Huguenots – or history as written by the descendants of British settlers. In both accounts, Africans, when mentioned at all, were treated as if they didn’t exist.

After conquering the native population, European settlers proceeded to rename many of the cities, villages, rivers and mountains after places from their homelands. Europeans even took to renaming Africans themselves. This history, as taught in South African schools and universities, seems little changed.

White domination of history has long been an international project – indivisible from the acquisition of European wealth and power.

When Dr Mongane Wally Serote was helping to establish Freedom Park, government’s leading attempt at cultural and historical redress, he said in an interview he was surprised to find “strong opposition” from some leading white international academics and intellectuals.

“They feel threatened by it. For many of them, the very phrase African history, or African historian, is a contradiction in terms,” he suggested.

“Their view of the African role in history is as cargo. But we can’t go on being told that architecture was founded in the West and that we were living in trees and didn’t design any shelter.

“We can’t be told that we made no substantial contributions to science, medicine and the arts. We have to liberate ourselves from this thinking. The same kind of leading intellectuals and philosophers who distorted our history in the past are the very ones who are objecting to an African voice today.”

Some believe the ANC played a role in silencing some South African history during the negotiations to end apartheid.

The late Bernard Magubane, an emeritus professor of anthropology who returned to his native South Africa after 27 years of teaching at the University of Connecticut, headed two of government’s most important history projects: a commission that produced an official history of the fight against apartheid and the classification and reclassification commission, which was charged with determining which documents from that era should be declassified. Magubane told me in an interview before he died: “There were many side deals about secrecy.

We may never find out what some of them were. In order to build a nation, you have to have selective amnesia. If those agreements had not been reached, today, the different factions in South Africa would be like Israel and Palestine. We would still be at each other’s throats.”

South Africa’s struggle with its African identity has not escaped international attention. “South Africa holds a special place in the African imagination,” wrote internationally acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o years ago. As he travelled through South Africa, he was saddened by the absence of recognition of African heroes.

“No street or town is named for Steve Biko, one of the founders of the black consciousness movement,” he said, adding: “The town where Biko was born is called Ginsberg, just outside a place called King William’s Town.

The memories of South African intellectuals like Biko and Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, are buried under European memory in South Africa. And this runs the risk that they will not be remembered.”

Walker is an independent journalist who has been a permanent resident of SA for 16 years

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