Will we ever learn the lessons of history?

2011-06-08 00:00

IT has been said that one of the lessons of history is that no one learns from the lessons of history. Mulling over the results of our recent election, and subsequent developments, I fear that the truth of that statement will in future become evident in South Africa.

One of the great disasters in the past century was the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, which led to World War 2 and the holocaust. This disaster had its origins in the punitive terms of the Versailles Peace Settlement. Jan Smuts tried to warn of the consequences, but no one would listen. After the war, it was hard to find a German citizen who would admit to having supported the Nazi Party. Quite truthfully they could claim to have simply voted for national solidarity in an attempt to restore national pride and dignity after the humiliation of their earlier defeat and the punitive peace terms imposed. Nevertheless, Germans today suffer under a great and collective sense of shame about the actions of the Nazi Party in World War 2.

Similarly, today it is very hard to find a white South African who will admit to having supported apartheid. The majority of white South Africans who did support apartheid were Afrikaners and they could claim, again probably quite truthfully, that they did not vote for apartheid per se, but were simply voting for ethnic solidarity to assuage the humiliation of their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War and the subsequent imposition of British hegemony. Again, however, Afrikaners suffer a collective sense of shame about the apartheid era and are understandably loath to admit any complicity in the actions of the National Party.

If we look at these two examples with the wisdom of hindsight, it was a great mistake for the respective electorates to give their leaders a blank cheque. The circumstances were such that — because of past humiliations — they could easily be manipulated, ultimately to their great cost, by unscrupulous politicians who played on their emotions.

Apartheid was a cause of great humiliation to black South Africans and they understandably have a need to assuage the memory of that humiliation. One consequence is that they vote en bloc for the ANC. In doing so the policies of the ANC probably do not matter one iota — they are simply voting for racial solidarity to assuage their humiliation in the era of white hegemony. In these circumstances, as in the examples above, they are extremely vulnerable to being emotionally exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

In the future — when the full effects of the ANC’s policies of racial polarisation and suppression of information have become evident — we might well find black South Africans collectively hanging their heads in shame and declaring that they simply voted for the ANC to assuage their racial humiliation and that they did not mean to give the ANC the absolute power which brought all South Africans to such a state of subjugation, oppression and misery, and which once again made South Africa a pariah in the world.

Could we be doomed to repeating our mistakes endlessly? If only a statesman would emerge from the ranks of ANC politicians.

• Clive Dennison is a retired academic.

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