Time to look back without fear

Minister of Education,Professor Kader Asmal, gives his views on history, memory and human progress

IT has been said South Africa is a country with much to forget, much pain, much loss, countless mistakes and squandered opportunities, lapses of judgement and fatigue of imagination. We are all bound up in these things. From the earliest instances of human interaction in Southern Africa ±quite as much as anywhere else, but most especially in our last 500 years ± the history of the confluences and conflicts that have formed and reformed society is often so awful we are moved, in the interests of sanity, to neutralise it, to push it into the background.

Yet if there is psychological need to overcome bad memory and move on, which seems a universal human impulse, it is predicated on remembering, or revelation, on history itself. It is the antithesis of amnesia, of the idle forgetfulness of people who lose track of who they are and the opposite of the deliberate forgetting of tyranny that is a denial of truth.

It is precisely our business, the business of history, to overcome forgetfulness, and to interrogate truths, to dare to remember, and to dare to question memory.

The writer Henry Miller was referring to a different kind of seeing when he argued that the role of the artist was to “contribute disillusion” to the world. In the realm of aesthetic perception, he did not mean introducing disappointment to society, but achieving revelation ± by the undoing of what is expected, by the overturning of what is taken for granted.

There is perhaps a lesson for us in Miller’s idea. People are fond of saying that “seeing is believing” to convey the idea that visible evidence is what is needed to banish doubt and affirm conviction. It is, perhaps, the sceptic’s motto, and it has its uses. But in history,seeing and believing are not equal opposites, and neither cancels out the other. After all, we all see differently, and are thus convinced differently.

Indeed, scepticism and conviction are the great and necessary rivals in the making, the writing, and the teaching of history. It is never enough to claim a knowledge of facts, since facts are shaped and revealed by ways of seeing, by the vantage point of the viewer,the availability of a view, and the particular access to it.

Many “facts” ± and certainly the meaning of all “facts” ± are contestable. So, the tension between scepticism and conviction introduces the vital, creative interplay between ways of seeing.Humanness bestows on us a desire to know ± a duty to remember, if you like ± but also a temptation to forget, an inclination and sometimes a need to put things behind us. And it falls to the historian and the teacher of history to negotiate the challenges that remembering and forgetting pose for society. Chinua Achebe in his Steve Biko Memorial lecture at the University of Cape Town last month reminded us of the horror visited upon the imaginative and far-sighted by George Orwell’s novel, 1984. It may be argued that the complete totalitarianism of Orwell’s conception was not any-where realised by the year 1984, yet there were, in the South Africaof the mid-1980s, signs of Orwell’s dreadful vision. Perhaps, at the time, it was not properly recognised by all who lived under it. And the clue to this historical ± and, indeed, moral ± oversight is arguably provided by Orwell himself when he writes in this very novel that “he who controls the present, controls the past, and he who controls the past, controls the future.”

Yet it is not always a weapon available only to the repressive government that seeks by cynical forgery to re-imagine the true nature of its being, the spurious foundation of its own power.

The excellent histories conceived and published even while the authoritarianism intensified were matched by the preservation of memory in myriad ways by countless people who, conceivably,could not read or write, yet were conscious agents in resisting the denial of who they were and what they wished to be. Orthodoxies were challenged, pretenders and self-declared heroes were mocked and brought down to size, neglected narratives were spoken.

Yet, in the minds of many ± and not only the beneficiaries of privilege ± hygienic history that was intended to justify the selective advantage of apartheid and the systematic brutality of which it depended settled like a sediment and hardened into a bedrock of ignorance and bigotry.

What makes this challenging is that too much of history teaching today follows the pattern of the past: rote learning, lack or imagination, lack of excitement and, ultimately, a lack of interest among pupils. We have got to change this. We are committed to restoring the stature of history as a vital subject. But its vitality depends on the manner in which it is taught, the degree to which South Africans are enlivened by it.

As the History and Archaeology Panel has expressed it, “It i snot memory-based repetition that needs to be credited, but rather the skill of knowing and deploying key facts in order to craft an overall historical understanding.” This is the goal we must go after.

In SA there are four more experts in western, white South African and colonial history than there are in black South African history. Among registered professionals in the field, only 10 percent have some expertise in African history ± that is, the history of African countries other than South Africa.

Let us look afresh at the history of our society. We have vital things to say to one another, vital things to discover about ourselves, and there is an inestimable value in that vigorous talk, the disputes among histories.

In this way, history offers an exciting, demanding challenge to young minds especially, but also to the whole of society, to engage consciously in the project of self-discovery and self-realisation.There is no surer basis for self-respect, and thus for tolerance,than a familiarity with history, for in confronting what has made us, we come to know ourselves, we banish illusion, we proceed by assured revelation of our multiple pasts, we confirm where-value lies.

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