Cape's Vibrant History a Global Mix

Article excerpt

This week we make our annual celebration of heritage. Heritage Day was set up as one of our national holidays in 1995 at the request of Inkatha, replacing the more specific, and so potentially divisive, Shaka Day just as Soweto Day was broadened into Youth Day and Sharpeville Day into Human Rights Day. But despite these universalising themes, it is our national heritage we are exhorted to recall, even if ignoring it and focusing on braai-ing is just about all we can do to forget our highly fractured past.

For a selective interpretation of history is required to build up a sense of national pride. Most nations, particularly those that emerged out of colonialism in Latin America, Asia and Africa, have had to largely invent such a national past for themselves since their boundaries do not coincide with anything that existed before colonial conquest.

And all nations choose to highlight those aspects of their past that fit their present political and cultural self-image while ignoring those that are more awkward. As the 19th century French historian Ernest Renan famously said, "Getting history wrong is an essential factor in the formation of a nation."

Most academic historians would deny complicity in this creation of national heritage. But it is they who write national histories and teach it in our universities. In so doing they entrench the idea that the past is divided out into national units.

History as the academic discipline we know today (as opposed to history as everything that happened in the past) originated in 19th century Germany during the heyday of nationalism. It was given a major boost by the context of its time and the need to write the history of the new nation. From there it spread to other nations in Europe, the US and into the post-colonial nations of the southern hemisphere, each of which concentrated on its own particular national story. History is still usually taught in our schools and universities in national blocks, even when it deals with periods which long predate the emergence of nation states, which are a relatively modern phenomenon.

The first Professor of History in South Africa was appointed at the South African College in Cape Town in 1902, with a remit to study and write the history of the new nation that was to emerge in 1910 after the bitter divisions of the South African War. The historian's job was to explain the roots of the nation and the challenges it faced.

But here at the Cape we have a particularly awkward relationship with a South African national past.

At one time the 'Old Cape' was seen as the place in which the nation originated with Cape Town as its 'Mother City'. That view of the nation as rooted in a settler colony is no longer viable.

Now we turn to a much older past than the Cape, to Sterkfontein or Mabungubwe, and the story of South Africa has become much more than Cape colonists and their inland expansion.

But in this view, the Cape is often marginalised and seen as somehow 'un-African' in a view of history that continues to be racialised.

However, there is another way of looking at the Cape, one which is in tune with the direction to which many historians throughout the world are increasingly turning. This is a transnational approach, when we no longer see the nation state as the primary focus of reference.

I have found this in my research on the history of Cape slavery. In the 1980s historians were concerned to show that slavery as it existed in the early Cape colony was a vital part of the history of the nation.

The racial and social hierarchies that were set up under slavery prefigured the inequalities of 19th and 20th century South Africa. I still think that this was the case. But more recently we have become aware of the importance of the worlds from which slaves came, such as Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, in shaping their experiences. …