Dealing with disgrace

2010-01-26 00:00

ON Saturday, South Africa should have commemorated the historic Battle of Isan­dlwana, which happened 131 years ago.

The battle was historic for a number of reasons. It was the most decisive victory against an aggressive imperialist scheme, which Lord Carnarvon had experimented with successfully to bring Canada fully under British control. It also preceded the famous Battle of Dogali where gallant Ethiopians defeated an invading Italian army in 1887.

Of course, the British army returned shortly thereafter to sub-due King Cetshwayo’s army. The surprise defeat at Isandlwana still changed the course of the mighty imperial army. It was the first famous demonstration of the potency of guerrilla warfare against orthodox military strategy. It thus inspired guerrilla strategies employed by weaker armed forces against stronger opponents from the Bhambatha Rebellion in 1906 to the armed struggle against apartheid after 1960.

Isandlwana came to mean a place of shame for the coloniser, while the name and the event occupied a pride of place in the hearts and minds of the colonised during and after colonialism and apartheid.

Authorities and historians sought to rewrite this history to minimise the shame encountered, by falsifying the facts of the battle and its outcomes. They sought to rob the event of its historic features and reduce it to just one of many battles that the British army encountered in its victorious march to power over southeastern Africa.

They explained the defeat as an outcome of the fact that the British officers put in charge of the first invasion were of inferior quality. We are told that the commanders were also weak. We are also told that had the British army not chosen a rainy season, they would have not suffered defeat because they would have advanced with greater speed than they did.

Intent on avoiding confronting the pain of history, these South African historians described (and continue to do so today) Cetshwayo’s army and its strategies in a manner that suggests that it was inferior, as if to say it could not have won by design, but only by default. They call it an impi, even though the word in Zulu means war and not army. They describe it as a ragged and ill-equipped army­.

We are told colonial wars demonstrated that however large and clever a large ragged African militia might have been, it would not match a small contingent of professional European soldiers armed with modern firearms and artillery.

Intent on sanitising the shame of 1879, historians have reduced the commanders of Cetshwayo’s army — men of valour such as Ntshingwayo­ ka Mahole, Mavumengwana ka Ndlela and Dabulamanzi ka Mpande — into mere headmen lacking in military stratagem and unable to direct even their victorious army. The army’s medical men are dismissed as witch doctors, dabbling in barbaric magic that their ragged army so badly needed because it lacked access to the advantages of the modern science of war.

This narrative continues to dominate public discourse on Isandlwana. The shame of defeat is too strong to swallow for those who consider themselves to be superior to their opponents. The same can be said about how Americans are writing about the ill-fated invasion of Iraq by George Bush Senior, Vietnam and other occasions of shame. The Germans recall Adolf Hitler’s short, but brutal reign with disgrace.

Of course, after Isandlwana, Cetshwayo’s army was defeated. Should descendants of this army stay in perpetual disgrace? No, we should use the sad memory to build a happier future.

It is wise to use our sad and shameful past to start a new discourse to ensure that history does not repeat itself at our expense. A nation that fails to learn from its history or that avoids confronting it by selectively commemorating events misses a great opportunity to win against any future evil. A divided nation in transition such as ours can use its disgraceful past to solidify its unity and exorcise the ghosts of the past that haunt it.

It commonly occurs that disaster or conflict helps to concentrate the minds of power brokers in society on how best to achieve common aims in a peaceful and co-operative manner. If not for this tendency, the realist image of power brokers constantly tearing each other apart in a permanent battle for power would have long ago completely destroyed the world. I believe that interdependence and co-operation are the way forward in conditions where the basic instinct is for groups to rip each other apart through hatred, arrogance, the rebuilding of the protective laagers of the past, walls of division, and with the obscene wealth of the few and poverty of the majority.

South Africans need to realise that the commemoration of a painful history is an opportunity not to grandstand or withdraw in shame, but to find innovative ways to forge a new future, determined never again to walk the path of the shadow of death.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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