Remaking the past

2011-05-25 00:00

WE are just back from Greece. What bliss. No television news, or none that we could understand. Libya, Syria, the woes of the world, the mudslinging in the run up to the municipal elections at home, retreated into the background. All we could hear was the song of a resident bluetit in the cedar tree and the tinkling of goats’ bells in the nearby hills. The spring flowers were out in glory, and where but on a Greek island could you go out and pick fennel, basil, mint, and marjoram on the sidewalk outside the house?

Of course, Greece has not always been so peaceful. We were on Kefalonia Island. Kefalonia escaped the long Turkish occupation that much of Greece endured, but it has belonged to almost everybody else in its history — in turn Venice, Spain, France, and England, all of whom kept the locals in subjugation. It has endured war, occupation, massacres and earthquakes.

During World War 2 it was occupied by the Italians. When Italy surrendered to the Allies the 33rd Italian Infantry Division in Kefalonia turned against the Nazis to fight on the side of the islanders. In revenge, the Germans massacred the entire Italian regiment of 5 000 men. After the war many Kefalonians supported the Communists in bitter skirmishes against the British peacekeeping army. And then in 1953 almost all of Kefalonia was destroyed in an earthquake.

Perhaps they deserve their quiet peace now. British and German tourists are welcome, and though I’m not sure about Turks, there are plenty of Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims. Enemies are forgiven. But are old battles forgotten? Not in the least. On Easter Eve the towns and cities reverberate to the sounds of firecrackers, reminding them of the centuries under the Turks when Easter was forbidden and the Christian rebels defiantly fired their rifles in the air on Easter Eve to proclaim, after all, that Christ had risen. Greek firecrackers at Easter are like ANC freedom songs now; they recall past heroisms.

On our way home we took advantage of a stopover in Frankfurt to visit the small village of Rudesheim in Germany, on the Rhine.

There seems no possible military reason for Rudesheim to have been bombed, but much of it was, in fact, destroyed in the war. The historic Roman Catholic Church was ruined, although it is now beautifully and sensitively restored. Yet, now Rudesheim is peaceful, prosperous, somewhat schmaltzy. The streets were filled with tourists from the English midlands. Enemies are reconciled.

Yet, aspects of the war are not forgotten. In nearby Wiesbaden we came across a memorial park. There was a plaque. “In this place”, it said in German, “A hundred Wiesbaden Sinti and Roma were gathered to be taken to Auschwitz and Birkenau. More than a hundred thousand European Sinti and Roma were killed in the Nazi genocide.” “Sinti” and “Roma” mean gypsies. The gypsies of Wiesbaden were taken off to concentration camps and death. There was no mention of Jews. Memories are selective.

Wars, it seems to me, cannot be wiped from our memory. We must remember the atrocities of war. We must remember too, the acts of heroism. We came back to South Africa, to the endless arguments about which political party builds the worst toilets, and the row over “Shoot the Boer”.

Judge Leon Halgryn has ruled that the song is an incitement to hatred. As I write, the other court case brought by Afriforum against Julius Malema still has to be decided. Will a ruling one way or the other change anything? My old school has on its badge a spear and a rifle crossed, against a background of black, white and red. The motto is Pro aris et focis. The original context was the colonial wars of whites against blacks, guns versus spears, and the blood that was shed. White colonial boys, as they saw it, fought the hordes of savagery to protect their altars and firesides, their religion and their homes. So, is the Maritzburg College badge and motto now an incitement to racism and hatred? Should we report it to the Human Rights Commission? Does it incite white people to kill blacks? Of course not. We reinterpret things. The badge and motto can now just as easily be taken to mean that black and white boys will stand together to protect what is sacred and domestic.

In my church’s daily prayers at the moment, we recite a passage from Exodus in the Bible: “I will sing to the Lord who has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea; Pharoah’s chariots and army he has cast into the sea and they went down like a stone.” I confess I recite the words with a sense of discomfort — but does anyone seriously think that I thereby mean harm to Egyptians? The words are part of my tradition. They did once have a bloodthirsty connotation. Now they do not. The words are usually taken now to mean that God will drown any wickedness in me, leaving me purified.

We cannot and should not forget the past — the faults, the heroisms. Germans should remember the extermination of Jews. White South Africans should remember the horrors of apartheid. Black South Africans should remember the heroism of the struggle (and perhaps some other less creditable things too, but that is their business). Old songs remind us. But the meaning has to change. Julius Malema says many silly and offensive things. But nobody, neither his followers nor his enemies, seriously thinks that he or the ANC want to shoot white farmers. Farm murders are a terrible fact of life, but they happen because of poverty, because of brutalisation, and not because Malema sings his song. The song remembers past struggles and past bravery. Like the College badge or the Christian Easter hymn, it can be reinterpreted, perhaps to mean we stand together against what apartheid once represented. We shouldn’t and cannot hope to suppress it. It can be made to mean something new. Let’s drop the argument.

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