Allister Sparks

Let's leave the past and focus on today's failures

2015-04-22 07:32

Allister Sparks

It is disconcerting to return from a trip abroad to find that one's country is sick.

I was away only a few weeks, and certainly there were plenty of problems ailing South Africa when I left, but the deterioration in my short absence has been startling.

I return to find the country boiling with rage and despair; people on a rampage of xenophobia in our city streets with the King of the Zulus and a son of the President fanning the flames; the economy slipping steeper into decline and the rand down to little more than half its value three years ago; the Eskom crisis worse than ever, plunging us into longer hours of darkness, stifling industry and worsening traffic chaos - with winter still to come.

And while all this is going on, the main public debate has been about the removal of a statue. The statue of a man who died more than a hundred years ago, before most of our grandparents were born.

And the defacing of the effigy of another white man who landed at the Cape 363 years ago, a company official who stayed only seven years, the same length of time Jacob Zuma has been President. According to Zuma, he was the source of all our troubles, which Zuma somehow can't fix.

Symptoms of a deep malaise?

And even that of Mohandas Ghandi, venerated the world over as a man of peace and a symbol of non-racialism.

And, most disconcerting of all, a growing number of voices saying the Rainbow Nation idea is dead, that Nelson Mandela failed his people by reaching a negotiated settlement instead of going for outright victory to complete the revolution.

Are these not symptoms of a deep malaise, of a nation becoming sick in its very soul, of a people in a state of chronic depression?

Is this not a case of avoidance syndrome, or displaced anger? The people protesting loudest at the declining state of the nation are not pointing to the real cause of their frustration, which is poor governance dimming their hopes of a better future.

The most apt quote I have heard in what little real debate there has been on this  subject came in Parliament the other day from that old stalwart, Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, who said: "We have one of the largest and costliest governments in the world. Sadly, it is grossly ineffectual. In fact it is a very expensive bunch of amateur fire-fighters trying to douse a multitude of flames."

But the protesters, especially the young intellectual elite at our universities, never mention that. They don't blame the real cause of their disappointments and frustrations, which is the ineffectual Zuma government which promised so much but is delivering so little. Or that a politically connected and corrupt black elite is grabbing what benefits there are.

They blame Cecil John Rhodes. It's colonialism, you see. White colonialism. Thus the whole Rainbow Nation idea is to blame.

Cliches are easy. So is scapegoating. But surely that is not the kind of intellectual rigour our universities are imparting to their students. As an enthusiastic reader of history, I am the last to decry its importance in shaping the character of nations. But it has to be understood in the context of its times. It can be distorted and abused, as it very often is, for political purposes.

Certainly colonialism was exploitative. It always is. The Romans exploited the ancient Britons, but they also sparked the development of that backward island, as they did all the rest of their vast empire. The English, in turn, exploited and displaced the native Americans, the native Australians and New Zealanders. Some of the actions could be classified as crimes against humanity. But they also sowed the seeds of development in those countries which are prospering today.

An entrepreneurial spirit

The same goes for Africa. Rhodes was indeed the ultimate colonialist and he did many reprehensible things. Olive Schreiner, one of my historical heroes, abhorred him. But he was by any measure a remarkable man. Far from having come from a rich plutocratic background, Rhodes was the son of a church-mouse-poor Anglican deacon and one of 12 children, who came to South Africa as a sickly 17-year-old with 3000 pounds borrowed from an aunt. In his 32 years here (he died at 49) he established an astonishing array of large companies, founded two countries, built a railroad he hoped would eventually reach Cairo, founded two universities, established a world-renowned scholarship, and became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

He and the likes of Barney Barnato, who began life as a street juggler and acrobat in London, brought with them an entrepreneurial spirit that laid the foundations of South Africa's industrial revolution that turned it into the most highly developed country in Africa. A spirit, it must be said, that has not flourished among our indigenous population, who have now been free for two-thirds of the time Rhodes was here.

But as Cassius said in his oration at the funeral of Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." So it is with Rhodes.

I have a sneaking feeling that those students who threw faeces and paint at Rhodes's statue are probably quite proud to have been born into Africa's most developed country. Instead of wasting their energy abusing statues, they should use what intellectual potential they have to lead a youthful crusade for a better government so that they can seize the opportunities that Rhodes originally opened up for anyone with an enterprising spirit.

He laid the foundation of a country that today attracts immigrants from all parts of the continent. Immigrants with enterprise -- whom we now want to kill.

All this brings to mind an article I once read by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, in which he took a phrase from a book by a gay novelist, We the minority, and used it in a context of "we" being the living, the majority the dead. Cohen's theme was that in his global travels as a journalist, the most troubled countries he had reported on were dominated by the dead majority.

What he meant was that those countries were overly influenced by the glorified history of past grievances and perceived injustices. That is what dominated their contemporary politics and public psyche. They looked to the past, not the future. And politicians in those countries exploited those mythologised grievances for political purposes, to the detriment of their people.

Learn from the past

Cohen was born in London of a Jewish family shortly after they had emigrated from South Africa. He listed South Africa among those that lived in the past, together with Israel,

Ireland, the Balkans and most of the Muslim world, which is still locked in deadly conflict over the seventh century dispute about who was the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad.

Let us study and remember the past, to learn from its mistakes and not repeat them. And to honour its heroes and martyrs. But let us not relive the quarrels of the past and allow them to dominate the present and distort the future. As an eminent Israeli, Avraham Burg, wrote in an appeal to his people: "The Holocaust is Over: Let Us Rise From Its Ashes."


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