SA history just an exercise in boredom?

Cape Town – So, Freedom Day.

On Tuesday night I reflected quietly on the freedom of not setting an alarm for the following morning, but resisted the temptation to share the thought on social media for fear of seeming to trivialise the day [April 27].

On Wednesday we had a friend round for a braai, who said that as she was driving to our house someone on the radio was talking about how we voted all those years ago, and were part of history before it became history. I asked my 13 year old if he knew what Freedom Day commemorated and he rolled his eyes at me. Of course he knows. 

In history at school, they have so done the birth of the new South Africa.

Several years ago on a trip to Robben Island with my sister-in-law from the UK, I asked Jak, then 11, and his friend Sean if they knew the history of Robben Island. They knew, alright, and it was plain they felt they had had quite enough of hearing about it. A lot of eye-rolling and sighing indicated high boredom levels with the topic.

Let’s go further back in time to a holiday when Jak was even younger. At the Wilderness National Park, a large group of caravans and tents were drawn up in a circle. Look, I said, there’s a laager. What’s a laager, asked Jak. Which meant something significant to me: he had made it halfway through primary school without ever learning about the Voortrekkers.

When I was at primary school, after the Voortrekkers but before the rinderpest, the country was in the deep and horrible depths of Christian National Education. Every year, history brought yet more lessons about the Great Trek. Anyone else remember the story of Racheltjie de Beer, who saved her brother by hiding him in an anthill on a cold night? She is the most memorable personality in a string of lessons about heroic deeds in the making of our country as it was then. And these lessons were repeated year in, year out. If the intent was to instil in children a sense of pride in our glorious past, as wrought by Afrikaners, then the whole thing failed. We were all bored rigid.

That remembered boredom made me happy that day at the Wilderness. My child was free, it seemed, from the burden of that particular bit of history.

I’ve since kept an eye on his history books – Marco Polo, Mapungubwe, Mali, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela: a patchwork of African, South African and world history with holes in it. Not even Wolraad Woltemade gets a mention. (I asked Jack if he knew the name. Famous drug dealer, he essayed. Stan Lee character? Nope, I told him, heroic chap who rescued drowning people in Table Bay.)

Oddly, I now find that I think he should at least have a glance at the Great Trek (Racheltjie needn’t put in an appearance though). If it was wrong for the lessons in those drab Krugersdrop prefabs to ignore the history of Africa (as just one example of things that were never mentioned), is it not also wrong for current history to omit whole tracts of the South African past? In both cases, it’s clear that nation-building is at work. And it’s also clear that this kind of repetitive recounting of heroic stories causes more boredom than it does enlightenment.

And that makes me sad. Because I remember so clearly the joy of that bright day in 1994 when we went and cast our first democratic votes. I remember the hope and exhilaration we felt when Nelson Mandela was released. And all those emotions sprang out of the years we had all lived through, when people were being jailed and killed for what they believed in, or being sent to fight in a war that was not theirs, and it seemed we would never get out of the grey, grim place our country had become.

To our children, though, this is all just a long set of lessons that could do with a little less repeating. Perhaps that is just the nature of history? That the wonder of living through a big event will never make it into the pages of a text book? Or maybe that is what happens when nuance and complexity is sacrificed on the altar of nation-building?

I am sure of one thing though: we have all learned the hard way that freedom is not simple at all. And neither is history.

This was first published on IOL Lifestyle

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