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Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
South Africa struggles with its past
Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer said she was insulted
By Alan Little in Johannesburg

Moves to remove a novel by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer from South Africa's school curriculum on grounds of racism have upset the author, who is a life-long supporter of the African National Congress.

Miss Gordimer was in good company. Some Shakespeare plays were also to be struck off, on grounds ranging from racism to implausibility.

Education officials have now backtracked, and said that children should continue to read the work.

But the affair has highlighted a wider, ongoing struggle in South Africa to rewrite the country's history.

A black South African friend tells a story from his Soweto childhood in the 1970s.

Dangerous lesson

His history teacher is reading aloud from the set textbook - of how South African history begins in 1652 with the arrival of the Dutchman, Jan van Riebeeck, at the Cape.

Nelson Mandela inspects pictures of himself as a young man
Mention of Nelson Mandela was once strictly forbidden
As she reads she moves around the classroom. She starts closing all the doors and windows, making sure that no one is eavesdropping from outside.

When she is satisfied that it is safe to do so, she places the set textbook face down on her desk, leans forward meaningfully and, in a quiet, determined voice loaded with the importance of the moment, she says: "His name is Mandela. Mandela. Nelson Mandela."

Then, as though nothing unusual had happened, she resumes her lesson of how the Dutch found the land empty and colonised it, turning an unpopulated wilderness into a modern nation.

Afrikaners 'oppressed'

In the old version of South Africa's history, the Afrikaners take centre stage as the truly oppressed.

The Dutch arrived at the Cape. They were peaceful farmers who were attacked and harried and betrayed by neighbouring black nations, most treacherously by the Zulus.

Then the most perfidious nation on Earth seized the Cape of Good Hope - the British.

In the early 19th century, the downtrodden Afrikaner nation declared independence from the British Empire, loaded up their ox-wagons and trekked north into the interior of the savage continent.

There they founded their own Boer Republics - later known as the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

When gold was discovered in these territories, the British, fuelled by greed, declared war and again enslaved the Afrikaners.

Only in 1948, when the National Party won the election, did the Afrikaners achieve their liberation.

Myths preserved

Most state schools in South Africa are still using the old textbooks.


The policy the British introduced to which the Afrikaners' forebears truly objected was the abolition of slavery

One sentence in the text reads: "The Great Trek was an act of self preservation, a protest against British racial policies and a manifestation of the pioneering spirit of the Afrikaner".

There are problems with this. For one thing, the people who took part in the trek did not, at that time, think of themselves as Afrikaners.

The word - if it existed at all - did not denote a national identity - that came much later, in the 20th century. It is a post-hoc invented tradition.

At the time of the event, the Great Trekkers thought of themselves as Dutch settlers, or, more vaguely, simply as Boers, which is also not a nationality, being simply the Afrikaans word for farmer.

As for the British "racial policies" that the trekkers were fleeing: Well, the policy the British introduced to which the Afrikaners' forebears truly objected was the abolition of slavery.

History discredited

This version of South Africa's national past is now either discredited as the founding myth invented to justify apartheid, or, at best, regarded as but one small part of the full story.


How do you create a single narrative around which all South Africa's peoples can cohere?

To fill the vacuum left by its removal, an orgy of historical reclamation is taking place.

It is no longer necessary to check the doors and windows for eavesdroppers before whispering the name of black liberation heroes.

But South Africa cannot agree what to put in place of the old orthodoxy of Jan van Riebeeck and the pioneers of the Great Trek.

The government has appointed a committee of eminent historians, archaeologists and anthropologists to come up with a new orthodoxy.

Embracing diversity

They hope to not simply replace a canon of white heroes with a canon of black ones, but create one that will embrace all South Africa's diversity.

It is a huge task. How do you create a single narrative around which all South Africa's peoples can cohere? It may well prove impossible.

South Africa - like those transitional post-communist societies of Europe - is learning that, as George Orwell wrote: Who controls the past controls the present.

As a Russian friend once eloquently pointed out to me, in countries like ours, it is not the future, but the past that is unpredictable.

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See also:

18 Apr 01 | Education
Nobel-winner branded racist
27 May 99 | South Africa elections
Education: A promise hard to keep
10 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: South Africa
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