Max du Preez

Distorting history

2010-07-07 09:25

 A distorted understanding of history always leads to a distorted view of the present and is an impediment to any group or nation's capacity to understand itself.

South Africans are very good at twisting history. There is not a group here that has been prepared to say: "We want to know it all, even the bad parts."

My own tribe, the Afrikaners, are particularly talented at this art. No-one in the world has a heroic, spectacular history like we do.

Well, this is at last changing.

In an article in the latest SA Journal of Science, researcher Elizabeth van Heyningen takes on the holiest of the holiest in Afrikanerdom, the concentration camps of the Anglo Boer War.

Uncomfortable suggestions

She suggests a part of the reason why so many women and children (some 28 000) died in these camps, was their lack of personal hygiene - the use of proper toilets wasn't all that widespread among the Boers apparently.

The incredible suffering of Afrikaner women and children kept in concentration camps by the British is a bitter memory that hasn't disappeared from Afrikaner consciousness.

Just last year there was a concerted effort among some right-wing loonies to sell the story to the world that British soldiers had actually raped large numbers of Boer women. It was simply a thumb-sick.

In another development,  academic JC van der Walt writes in the just-released Zululand True Stories that the Boers of the Transvaal Republic sometimes stole children from the black groups they attacked and used them as labourers, almost like slaves.

These are uncomfortable, difficult new insights into my Afrikaner past that are hard to process because they cast a dark shadow over our whole view of who we are and where we come from.

But if they are true, we should accept it, make peace with it and strive to learn more and understand better.


I was demonised some time ago when I wrote that the position of General Piet de Wet, brother of the famous Boer War general Christiaan de Wet, in history should be re-evaluated.

Piet, himself a successful general during the early parts of the war, decided half-way through that the war was meaningless and would destroy and impoverish the Afrikaners and he became first a hensopper (one who surrenders to the enemy with hands up in the air) and then a joiner, helping the British against his own people.

I researched the whole dynamic and Piet de Wet's arguments. All his predictions came true.
I merely suggested we ask, more than a century later, whether he really was such a despicable traitor or whether he actually had a reasonable case.

I, in turn, was then called a traitor, a hensopper and joiner.

Other histories

But Afrikaners certainly aren't the only ones who should start looking more critically into their own past.

English-speakers, for instance, have mostly not accepted the devastating impact that British colonialism had on the people of South Africa.

Arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes is still honoured by statues and buildings and even a university and the prestigious Mandela-Rhodes Foundation.  

I have asked before: how would South Africans react to something called the Mbeki-Verwoerd Foundation or the DF Malan University?

Most Zulu-speakers in South Africa still believe in a vastly over-romanticised history of their founding king, Shaka.

For example: When, in one of my books on South African history, I presented evidence that he may have been a gay man and certainly was a tyrant with a lot of the blood of his own people on his hands, I was called a racist and a neo-colonialist.

Africans all over the continent are also very reluctant to accept their own ancient kings and chiefs' complicity in the slave trade-– they were often the ones who sold their enemies and sometimes even their own people to the European slave traders.

It would be a sign of our maturity as a people if we could relax, accept that the evil done by our forefathers does not actually reflect upon us who live now and seek a proper understanding of what happened before us.

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