South Africa Glosses over Its History
Rostron, Bryan, New Statesman (1996)
Bryan Rostron on why the ANC is as keen as the old white elite to wipe out the past
It was a classic image of apartheid: the black-and-white photo of a grim-faced, square-shaped Afrikaner vrouw glowering down at two small black kids at a protest demo in 1956. As I walked into the lecture hall, late, the historian blocked out half the photo on her overhead projector and explained how her publisher demanded that the white woman be cut out.
I was attending a conference at the University of the Western Cape, "Not Telling: secrecy, lies and history". The academic inserted another photo: a black township. In the foreground, three white policemen were trying to restrain snarling Alsatian dogs. Here, the publisher of the school textbook ordered that the police and their dogs be exorcised.
June Bam, a University of Stellenbosch historian, resisted the demands for cropping. "Things gradually turned nasty," she said. "Our intellectual work invested in three manuscripts over a period of 12 months suddenly disappeared." When it was finally returned, after five months of wildly differing excuses, the authors discovered that "text had been rewritten to make conflict stories consensus stories".
Such censorship was familiar in the bad old pre-liberation days. Yet this battle over school history content took place in 1997, three years after the first democratic elections, during what is now called "the new dispensation".
History, in both schools and universities, is not only being glossed, it is being sidelined. Academics estimate that enrolments in history departments have dropped by as much as 60 per cent in the past two years. This can be seen as part of a global market-related trend: what is the profit margin in studying history? But several leading historians in South Africa think it is a deliberate political ploy by the ruling regime. Social harmony, sometimes at the expense of "not telling" or downright fibs, is the new orthodoxy; nation building comes before truth. It is usually said that history is written by the winners; however, in our case, for fear of upsetting our largely peaceful transition to democracy, it seems the government is prepared to live with some old untruths in order to let sleeping (apartheid) dogs lie.
Many schools, particularly poorer black ones, still rely on apartheid-era textbooks. For example, Active History, still muse for nine year olds, states: "The Hottentots also moved south into Africa when the Blacks and the Whites came to Africa." This "empty land" lie, that blacks and whites arrived at the same time and therefore had an equal claim to settle, was one of the core justifications for apartheid. As for the 20th century, most old textbooks simply blank out black political movements or aspirations. History in Action, for 16 year olds, introduces apartheid only in the final paragraph, blandly concluding: "By 1948, the question of relations between White and Black dominated the political scene in South Africa. …