With Madiba ailing in hospital, we have an opportunity to revisit our own not too distant past, to appreciate in a more objective way, South African history in the turbulent 90s. With the very real tension and fear of that time slipping into our collective memory and being put into context we can at last see just how remarkable our own transition to democracy really was.
While we’re all thinking about the great Nelson Mandela, we have a chance to see him (and ourselves) with the perspective of almost twenty years, as much as we can now start to relate to our nation’s rebirth with an appreciation that only distance and the passage of time can bring.
I love history. It was the only subject we did at school that really taught me anything about how human beings behave. If that history involves your ancestors or your culture or land, it can be even more compelling. Unfortunately, I think, too few learners want to study history, and too few people want to read the real stories of real people. It seems easier to watch a soapie – or some Hollywood nonsense about a superhero – than to examine a revision of the contribution of so many men and women who forged our nation from shame, violence, dust and segregation. Those are the real superheroes.
Many of us recall CODESA, but have forgotten that ridiculous AWB attack on the World Trade Centre in armoured vehicles. We may have a vague recollection of the powerfully moving Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the cold narration of Craig Williamson’s testimony and his plan to murder Ruth First are worth revisiting. We may remember that fateful day when Chris Hani was gunned down, but if we watch the newsreels today we can identify the face of a track-suited, shattered Tokyo Sexwale on the scene; and a Madiba so somber at the funeral that it looked like he might burst into tears as he threw that single red rose on to the coffin. It is worth evaluating just how duplicitous the IFP were in the run up to the election of 1994, since we see them now only as a mostly ineffectual minority party. It is also no small part of the story that the old NP’s nuclear arsenal was dismantled in the run up to the unbanning of the ANC and the initiation of dialogue. We forget so much, and display such ingratitude for the tremendous journey our nation has taken. History can show us once more how triumphant the South African spirit is at its best. We need to remind ourselves of how we got to this juncture, and relight some fires with that knowledge.
While we continue to wait with bated breath for news on Tata, we must spend a little time familiarizing ourselves with the role he and so many other played in a national history that was to become an inspiration to the world. It is not good enough, and we cheapen the satisfaction available to the researcher by referring only to a nebulous understanding of the past. To make that experience real, to enhance it by degrees, we must re-read, remind and revisit the detail of our country’s story.
Mac Maharaj, now so often maligned for being the President’s spokesperson and the source of all our news on Madiba, knew how important history was. That’s why Mac smuggled A Long Walk To Freedom out of Robben Island on bits of paper in order to reconstruct it so that we could read Madiba’s story today.
While we’re so busy thinking about toilets in the Western Cape, Nkandla and President Obama, we might make a little time to reflect on the road already travelled, for going back down that track is not only an escape from mundane modernity, but a chance for you to observe your own evolution, and treasure your own place in time.
Published in City Press 7th July 2013