THE BIENNIAL NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF
THE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION OF SOUTH AFRICA


MESSAGE BY
MANGOSUTHU BUTHELEZI, MP
MINISTER OF HOME AFFAIRS AND
CHANCELLOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ZULULAND

UNIVERSITY OF ZULULAND: AUGUST 24, 2000

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times". As I look back over the history of South Africa, as a small fragment of the history of the world, I believe that we have been under this constant curse. Yet having moved through decades of conflict, slavery, colonialism and oppression, South Africa is truly blessed to have at last emerged into the hope of achieving prosperity, stability and genuine liberation. I am pleased to be among the men and women who ponder the course we have taken and carefully record our path. The Historical Association of South Africa is the home of the scribes and academics who remember where we have been. This is an honoured tradition among my own people, the Zulu nation, and it is a role within today’s South Africa that must be respected.

I have often reflected how one of these features of our Zulu ethos and pathos of life is the perception that our daily experience is the prolongation of past events into the instant moment, which creates that ephemeral concept referred to as the present. In fact, we feel that it is the past which produces us as we are, which indeed supports the logical extreme that the past is the only reality, for the future is a figment of our aspirations, and the present is an unreachable reality which disappears into the past as soon as we catch a glimmer of it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak at this biennial national conference of the Historical Association of South Africa, as the Chancellor of our host university, the University of Zululand. I feel that there is great significance in our meeting here, in the heart of KwaZulu Natal. It is here that much of South Africa’s history developed and, from this place, the underlying dynamics of our liberation struggle took shape. In the past forty years, the University of Zululand’s History Department has produced hundreds of graduates, including prominent leaders, among whom the Premier of this Province, Mr LPHM Mtshali, is one.

KwaZulu Natal is also the cradle of the Zulu nation, where our great kings lived victoriously and died honourably. The Zulu tradition of passing the history of its nation from the mouths of the forefathers to the hearts of the children, is long based on the notion that when we know where we have been, we will know where we are going. As a new millennium unfolds, I believe that this tradition retains its value. South Africa is building a new country and forming a new people, and we are starting from a foundation which was laid on the ashes of apartheid. As we move away from the dark chapters of our past, we must remember the ugly truths so that never - in all the generations to come - will such atrocities ever be repeated.

I believe that a new country must search for and find new cultural paradigms and that this is particularly true in respect of history and historiography. Historiography is somehow more important than history itself. It embodies the culture of an age by determining how we look at, read and assess the otherwise incomprehensible objective facts of the past. Historiography changes the assessment of past events from right to wrong and then back to right again, to adjust to the sensibility and ideology of the present. We need to be particularly attentive in developing a genuine South African historiography which expands, rather than limits, our cultural horizons and our in-depth understanding of historical events.

As we form new paradigms, the temptation always exists to create dogma and, even at this juncture of transformation, relativism remains the preferred option for prudence and pragmatism. What is important is that both our history and historiography illuminate and give value to the history of all our people, to be read within their own context, cultural paradigms and historiographic frames of reference. In respect of the history of African people, we are faced with the increased challenge of creating, for the first time, ways and means not only to tell the story, but also to understand it and appreciate it within the context in which it evolved. This historiography of the African people will undoubtedly be affected by the original anthropological outlook cast upon it by the European tradition, which one does not need to disregard, but which one undoubtedly needs to go beyond.

I understand that the theme of this conference concerns the needs and challenges of history as an indispensable research and teaching field in the new millennium. I am pleased that this Association has continued to work year after year to promote historical research and teaching at all levels and to all people. I recall how Professor HB Thompson appealed many years ago for history to be a compulsory matric subject. From the theme of this conference it is clear that education remains a key concern of the Historical Association of South Africa. Certainly there is prudence in the desire to create a balance within our educational curriculum between the cultural, the natural and the technical sciences.

We need to ensure that history becomes one of the formative tools of the intelligentsia, opinion-making class and governing elite of our country. As in the rest of the world, our social mores should expect that pre-eminent citizens in the civil service, the diplomatic corps, and many professions, have an adequate background in history and, possibly, philosophy.

It is sad that a wrong perception seems to have developed that the study of history relegates one to the position of an old tweed jacket academic with little to contribute to the real issues of the day. Such a misconception of the value of history has prompted young people to opt for technical subjects rather than cultural ones. The truth is that historians are the keepers of our collective wisdom, who may offer solid advice on issues of economics, security, agriculture, education, business management and politics. If we fail to ground our children in a knowledge of history, we are cutting off a new generation from everything that has gone before, and every mistake of our past will be made again.

We need to bring history to the people and make it part of the cultural milieu which feeds our citizens on a daily basis . We need to increase the number of museums and promote historical awareness through movies, exhibitions, cultural events and the type of domestic and international tourism which highlights historical sites and monuments.

I have often spoken of the need to educate young people and train our adults in life skills and career skills. This is an essential first step towards creating a society which is moving forward, rather than standing still. We have set our course towards an African Renaissance, which does not suggest a regression into sealed ethnic boxes, but a progression towards a truly modern and yet truly African state. I raised this concept long before the African Renaissance glibly caught on in the national psyche. Indeed, I have been speaking about the need to protect and promote our historical heritage for as long as I can remember.

The contribution of history is key to the formulation of the type of renaissance which our country will be developing. I have often stated that a renaissance is a process of reaching out for new elements which enrich our present cultural horizons and knowledge. It must be a process of evolution, and not involution. Given our history, for me a renaissance means that we must find from within a strength and determination to reach out and find, from without, what we need for our growth. The study of history must relate to the history of mankind, including the history of other continents, such as Europe, Asia and the Americas. We have a lot to learn which has not yet been taught in our land, and only through the acquisition of this knowledge will a renaissance finally be possible.

During apartheid the scarce teaching of history offered in those days was flattened to highlight the shallow epics of colonial events, neglecting the magnitude of world events which had a much greater impact in shaping mankind’s collective consciousness. Our people now enter mankind’s collective consciousness by learning, absorbing and becoming one with dramatic events, such as the emergence of Sumerian culture, the Hellenistic period, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the intricate history of China, the Korean Empire, the American and French Revolutions, and the Russian Revolution, just to mention a few.

At least 8000 years of recorded history lies behind us, which must now be brought to the knowledge and fruition of our people. Renaissance is about finding the strength in our own culture to reach out and absorb what we can learn from the past experiences of these different cultures for our own growth and prosperity. We will also need to find ways and means to relate historical material, the significance of which often remains open to question. Historical events are like the Kantian noumenon, which remains unknowable and yet its phenomenology determines the reality we experience.

In this respect, I am reminded of the statement of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who reportedly answered the question on what he thought about the French Revolution by replying that it was too early to tell. Obviously, the long-term Chinese historiographic perspective may be more than our country can afford to consider when assessing its own past. However, some perspective and detachment is always necessary and historians need to provide the contribution of this wisdom to some recent attempts made to rewrite our history to serve contingent cultural and political agendas.

When the National Party acceded to political power in 1948, I remember some of their prominent spokesmen saying that they were now going to write what they called "a property history of South Africa." I remember the reaction of my history professor, Professor HJ Chapman to this idea. He wrote his response in "The South African Outlook" which was then published in Lovedale. It is still published even today, although I am not certain where it is published. The title of that article which Professor Chapman wrote has stuck in my mind to this day, which was "Proper History or Propaganda."

No subject is as abused as history is by those with political agendas. I have had experience of this in the things that Professor Shula Marks has written about me and the Zulu Royal family. However, the climax of how far Marxist historians are prepared to go was the endorsement by them of a sordid piece of defamatory propaganda that was written about me by a researcher of the ANC, Nobleman Nxumalo, under the pen name of "Mzala." Quite clearly the ANC had an agenda to destroy me politically-speaking, which was expressed in London by one of their spokesmen. So Nxumalo was given this task of doing a hatchet job on me. All that I understand. But the only thing I could not quite understand was when very respectable Marxist historians decided to give this piece of vile and defamatory propaganda respectability by endorsing it as a true history of me and my family. Here was an example of how far even seemingly respectable historians are prepared to go when they have a political agenda.

It is an honour for me to speak today to the guardians of our past as a kindred spirit, knowing the value of history for the road ahead, and the challenges we face to remember history as it happened, and not with the colouration of political correctness or political gain. I fear that many South Africans have not yet understood the concept of an African Renaissance as being the structure we are trying to create to overcome our past, but build our prosperous future on the lessons it has to offer. Those committed to building this vision from the field of historical education have a dual responsibility; the first is that of teaching the historical truth, and the second is to learn from it.

It is my firm hope that from this conference a vision will emerge on how to achieve this goal in the new millennium, recognising the unique challenges we face in South Africa where our history is intrinsically intertwined with politics, and our collective history is underscored by the abundance of cultural histories of a diverse and multi-faceted people.

History has never been a fixed set of facts. It is, as its name suggests, a story told by one observer from a specific context. The constant writing and rewriting of human experience and change must be recorded and interpreted objectively, yet this is often not an easy task. There will always be a flavour demanded by the general populace and no matter what the ingredients of the dish, that flavour will often emerge regardless.

I mentioned at the outset that the history of our country is but a small fragment of the history of the world. As technology speeds forward into the third millennium, our world is becoming smaller and our existences ever-more intertwined. The advent of the global village will make it increasingly more difficult to fragment pieces of history according to geographic location, and the recent history of one people will no longer exist to be recorded in isolation from the influence or experience of others. We may see in South Africa’s recent history a microcosm of the global picture. Moreover, our country’s history cannot be fully understood without reference to the bigger picture of the Cold War, the global shift of emphasis to human rights, and international political motives.

The recent history of South Africa has been part of the greater puzzle that we must contribute to reconstructing to really understand what happened. The understanding of some aspects of our history, such as the dynamics and events of the black-on-black conflict, will only be finally understood when this greater puzzle is reconstructed with the benefit of an historical perspective.

In our country more than in other places, and at this time more than ever before, history holds the key to our future. Those convened here are important key holders, even though no one holds the key which opens all the doors to what remains a multi-faceted, fragmented and often indecipherable past experience. However, together we can learn more about who we are by understanding more of our own past and that of the great collegiality of mankind to which we all belong. For this reason, I wish this conference the greatest possible success in its deliberations and extend to all its participants my felicitations and personal support.

 

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