Whose Union will we be celebrating?

2010-05-21 15:12

I am glad the

government has not gone ballistic over the

­celebrations of the centenary of the 1910 Union of South Africa.

I felt a bit

uneasy when ­President Jacob Zuma reminded the nation that 2010 marked the 100th

anniversary of our country as a ­unitary state.

It is difficult to say what ­exactly elicited my unease, but with

hindsight it seems to me that to celebrate that May 1910 event is to choose to

forget what the ­Union meant for many of the country’s ­inhabitants.

The centenary appeals only to a section of the population. We must

also not forget that some intractable problems, such as disproportionate land

distribution, also stem from the formation of the Union.

As a colleague aptly observed, 1994 should be seen as year zero of

the ­history of a unified South Africa. Before 1994 there was no unified South

Africa in any meaningful sense of the word – it was merely an ideal we aspired


In a sense it is a good thing that the centenary almost coincides

with the Soccer World Cup and that the tournament will hog the limelight while

the centenary remains in the ­shadows, where it belongs.

There are a number of reasons why this anniversary should just be

left to gather dust on the pages of Hansard.

In the first place, the vast majority of the people clearly did not

have a say in how the ­country was balkanised by the English and Dutch

colonisers into states such as ­the Transvaal and the Cape.

Neither did they have a say in which territories would be included

or excluded.

That is why, for example, you still find that ­kinsfolk who owe

allegiance to the same kgoshi/inkosi are to this day divided into different

nationalities in villages near our borders.

Another reason to just ignore this centenary is that homelands were

created to keep black people disenfranchised and to ­sustain the illusion that

South Africa ­belonged only to white people.

The majority of our forebears were turned into sojourners in their

own country through the creation of these homelands.

How, then, could the

country have been unified before 1994 when most of us remained putative citizens

of some backyard republics ­created solely to exclude us from ­meaningful

citizenship of this ­country?

And what are we going to publicly ­celebrate next? The 1961

transfer of power by the British to the local whites?

Surely there are more important events from the previous century

that we should publicly mark.

One such event is the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, whose centenary four

years ago attracted very little attention.

Perhaps the problem is that we ­attach symbolic importance to

different aspects of history given that we are steeped in such a divided past.

But it need not always be so. If we are to become ­something of a

nation and not just a motley group that happens to share common geographic

borders, we need to evolve a shared idea of what some aspects of our past


If we don’t arrive at this shared understanding of our history we

will continue to wonder why certain aspects of our past, such as songs and

statues, are offensive to one section of the population and not to other


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