History? Herstory? Ourstory? Whosestory?

dinosaursThe Holocaust didn’t happen. Not the way the Jews want us to think it did. Yes, the Nazis killed thousands. But the gas chambers? The ovens? Myths, invented by Zionist propagandists.

The young man who told me this wasn’t your average Holocaust denier. For starters he was South African, and studying politics at the University of Cape Town (we were standing just a poo’s throw away from the Statue). And he was black.

Carefully and articulately he explained that the Holocaust myth had been invented to entrench Zionism around the world. Its long-term plan? The continued colonisation and exploitation of Africa. Jews, he said, were behind every Western multinational plundering Africa. Jews had kept apartheid propped up. (What about Joe Slovo, I asked? Not a real Jew, he replied.) History, it seemed, was only big enough for one great crime.

It was my first taste of the peculiar calmness of the denier, the serenity that comes with having a mind that has found a theory it finds completely satisfying and has duly shut as tight as a clam. Curiously, it’s a calmness I haven’t found in white South African deniers. Perhaps that’s because we’re still a generation or two away from pathological apartheid denial: I doubt you’d find more than a handful of certifiably insane white people who believe that apartheid didn’t happen.

But there are other species of deniers seething in the suburbs and fibrillating on the farms. Trauma deniers wish the blex could just move on, while racism deniers wish they would just stop being so goddamned touchy about everything. Inequality deniers insist that their own wealth and the poverty of rural blex are a reflection of work ethics. And denial deniers protest that they are just trying to be rational adults in the face of constant provocation by entitled blex.

Given all this denial it would be easy to assume that many white people are hardcore history deniers, but that would be a mistake. These days history is the weapon of choice in almost any political debate. And not just recent history. Ask a very angry white man about a Victorian statue and he will unleash centuries of historical factoids on you, racing back through time like a brandy-and-Coke-fuelled Terminator, until he knocks on your door, asks if you’re Sarah Connor or Cecil John Rhodes or Shaka or Jan van Riebeeck, and shoots the conversation in the head.

For anxious whites…history promises a stay of execution

Dates, names, places; all have become ammunition against political opponents. Perhaps it’s inevitable. For black South Africans fighting for economic justice, history is testimony in a long-overdue trial: South Africa needs an economic Codesa, a negotiated settlement making amends for a vast economic crime, and history is the key argument of the prosecution.

For anxious whites, the future implications of past history are just as loaded. Relics of colonialism are falling, and yet what are white people but relics of colonialism? Surely it can be only a matter of time (the frightened suburbanite asks himself) until bronze statues are not enough and the living, breathing statues start being ushered out? Amid these fears, history promises a stay of execution: prove that you’ve been here long enough, discreetly enough, and perhaps they’ll let you stay.

The problem with any discussion of our history, though, is that it’s based on the assumption that we all have a basic knowledge of the past. And I’m just not sure that’s true.

Ten years ago, while lecturing on modernism in the English department at UCT, I realised that many of my students looked blank when I mentioned the 1920s. I tentatively asked if they knew anything about the 1930s. Nothing. The ’40s? Yes, they said: didn’t the US fight a war against Russia then? Fascinated by their almost total ignorance, I started giving my classes a short general knowledge test – a few famous faces, a few famous quotations and events. The results were staggering.

At least half of these beautiful young people who sat before me had completed 12 years of school without ever discovering where the Holocaust took place, or who wrote Das Kapital, or where Angola is, or when humans landed on the moon. (Neil Armstrong? Didn’t he win the Tour de France like a million times?) They couldn’t identify pictures of Walter Sisulu or Nadine Gordimer or Josef Stalin. Most, but not all, got Hitler.

My quiz was skewed to reflect the history I considered important. But still, if the educated elite are going into the world without the faintest understanding of how they got there, are we really surprised that our historical debates have become bogged down in pseudo-intellectual trench warfare?

So can we arrive at a shared reading of history? Will we ever be able to read from the same page? I don’t know. But reading – something, anything – is as good a start as any.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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5 comments

    1. Perhaps you should go tell the families of those who perished by the Nazi’s hands that it didnt exist. Fortunately general Eisenhower made his people keep film footage because he said that one day someone would deny this atrocity ever happened.
      it must be great living in a world through rose tinted specs?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well written and thoughtful essay. I’m glad you wrote this! “History promises a stay of execution” is a delightful sense of how we address and talk about the colonial past.

    Like

  2. ” The Jews kept apartheid propped up” oh really ?? The Jews constitute less than 1% of the South African population, yet what names stand out in the apartheid struggle?

    Myrtle and Monty Berman, who started the armed resistance movement
    Alan and Beata Lipman
    Arthur Chaskalson
    Joe Slovo
    Ruth First
    Helen Suzman
    Arthur goldreich
    Raymond Suttner
    Denic Goldberg…. To name but a few .

    So I don’t know from which text books that black South African student was STUDYING history .

    Like

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