Getting lost in rival histories

2013-04-12 00:00

WE were looking after grandchildren in Durban while their parents were away. It involved watching the infant school swimming gala. The children looked very sporty in their speedos. Some even had swimming goggles. But many could not actually swim. Each event required the children to “swim” across the shallow end. Some swam, many waded. A tip for future Olympians: provided they will let you compete in the shallow end, you get along faster by simply jumping rather than flapping your arms about in any recognised swim style.

Alexandra came second. Except that in her view she came first.

“No you didn’t,” we said. “We were there. We saw.”

“I was there too,” she replied. “And I won.”

It seemed best to allow her to make her own history. After all, is that not what postmodern history is about, everyone interpreting the facts to make their own narrative?

Our grandparental duties also involved fetching the children from their gymnastics class. It was evening. Dusk was settling. We don’t know Durban well. My wife had been taken on a guided tour the day before to make sure she knew the way, but the tour also involved animated gossip about other family members. Concentration had lapsed. Making the journey ourselves the following evening we got lost. Very lost. We were in parts of Durban I had never seen before — very beautiful parts, full of lakes and parkland, but not where we were meant to be.

We phoned the gymnastics teacher. “We don’t know where we are. We don’t know where you are either. We’re lost.”

She asked what road we were in. We looked at the street sign. But in Durban they have changed many of the street names. Resentful residents, angry at Michael Sutcliffe, the previous city manager whom they hold responsible, have spray-painted the new names out.

“We don’t know,” we said. “It’s been blacked out.”

We retraced our steps to find an unadulterated street sign. We found one. “Michael Sutcliffe Drive”, it said in bold black paint, although the letters did seem to have been pasted on.

“No,” said our telephone guide, “I think that’s just a joke. Go back further.”

We did. By now we were almost back where we had started. We found the real name. We read it out to her. It meant nothing to her. It commemorated someone of whom neither she nor we had ever heard. She had no idea what road we were in. And then we found it, an old pre-Sutcilffe street sign overlooked by the city authorities. “We’re in Queen Mary Drive,” we said — and now she knew where we were, and we got our directions and found the gym.

I don’t really have a thing about Queen Mary. I never met her. There was another road in Durban named after my great-great-uncle, and now that road is named after someone else, too. I don’t really have a thing about that either. I never met my great-great-uncle. We all make our own history and I think it’s fair enough if most people in Durban want to commemorate their story by naming streets after people who mean something to them.

But it is confusing when two histories overlap. Then we have no common points of reference. All too often, the victor obliterates the history of the vanquished.

“There can only be one story. We won. So it’s our story.”

Perhaps it would have helped if they had allowed both sets of names to be put on the poles, at least until we who don’t know Durban well have got the hang of it. Perhaps it would be best to allow both stories to be told and remembered?

Of course, that puts an obligation on both sides to learn the story of the other.

We have just commemorated the 20th anniversary of Chris Hani’s murder. In South Africa, there will be many different histories of Hani, of the struggle, of the events leading up to 1994 and the events that have followed. Already Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande are vying with different versions of “What would Chris say now?”

In Britain, they have just been confronted with the death of Margaret Thatcher (the word “celebrated” does not seem tactful in this case). There will certainly be many different histories of the Iron Lady. She was, and is, a divisive figure.

Whose history will triumph? Whose interpretation will be the right one?

Or can we allow that people will all have their different perspectives, their different historical interpretations? Can two histories live side by side? Is there room for that?

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