Opinion

ANC version of history overshadows the real story of resistance

It is not only pupils and born-frees who need to learn their country's history - or risk losing the ability to interrogate various political traditions

17 June 2018 - 00:00 By PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

When I was about 11 I visited Robben Island for the first time, excited about the opportunity to learn about Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela's time in prison. A struggle veteran provided a historical narration of the anti-apartheid struggle so dramatic that the tour felt like an episode that unfolded into its climax in Mandela's old cell. After standing behind Mandela's bars, what followed was not so important, so consumed was I by his story.
Once we were on the tour bus I remember passing by the limestone quarry, and a brief stop outside the house in which Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe had served his solitary confinement.
That Sobukwe's influence had been so important that a "Sobukwe clause" had been instituted by the apartheid law-making machinery was not indicated by the time we spent there.
If the histories of other Robben Island prisoners, such as Xhosa King Makanda kaNxele, or Autshumato, king of the Goringhaicona, or for that matter his niece Krotoa, were mentioned, I do not remember. Perhaps it was just that I was primed to listen out for the "real protagonists" of our historical drama.In the gift store after the tour I was drawn to the navy blue and maroon cover of Benjamin Pogrund's 1990 biography ofSobukwe, How Can Man Die Better. As we made the long journey from Cape Town back to Polokwane, we passed through Graaff-Reinet. I felt a very different connection to the landscape, almost looking out for the "house near the top of the hill" where Sobukwe was born.
I think about this when a ministerial task team investigating history as a compulsory subject argues that the history currently taught in schools is "sanitised" and at times too "touristy".
The task team is concerned that South Africa's "young people do not appreciate our country's history and that of the African continent", but really the lack of an appreciation of South Africa's historical context is not limited to the "born-frees".
I would argue that all who live in South Africa should have to take a mandatory course on our history.
The critique of history as told from the hunter's and not the lion's perspective is accepted by most, but few pay enough attention to the way in which the lions' story, or stories, have been told. What is concerning is a situation where the official history of the liberation struggle is the history of the ANC.
This has many similarities to Zimbabwe, where the state has officially sanctioned, through a broad mix of school curriculums, state broadcast media and national symbols, an official version of history that the late Terence Ranger named "patriotic history". In this "patriotic history", which increasingly came into play in the 2000s after the economic and political fallout following the fast-track land redistribution programme, the contributions of workers, women, urban and other movements to the liberation of the country were erased.The unbroken thread of Shona-dominated Chimurenga in Zimbabwe's liberation history has many similarities to the unbroken thread of the Congress tradition in the telling of South Africa's struggle for democracy.
Resistance prior to the founding of the South African National Native Congress (later the ANC) in 1912 is footnoted, while the competing political traditions that existed at the same time and followed are erased.
Would the new history speak to resistance mounted by the Khoi as early as 1510, when the Khoikhoi killed explorer Francisco D'Almeida and more than 50 of his men after they tried to kidnap their children and steal cattle? What about the Frontier Wars? What about the contested understanding of the Mfecane?
Once we do arrive in the 20th century, would the new history speak to the fact that while the ANC founders tried to petition the British king to resolve their affairs, John Tengu Jabavu proposed participation through the Cape vote? What about the challenge posed by "Nyasaland"-born trade unionist Clements Kadalie's Industrial and Commercial Union in the1920s and '30s?The ANC's own version of "patriotic history" sees to it that, as historian Steve Lebelo points out, the "resistance to the destruction of Sophiatown, the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, the women's anti-pass march and the treason trial in 1956, Nelson Mandela, the Rivonia trial, Liliesleaf Farm, Robben Island and related themes have been documented more extensively than any other historical moment in South Africa".
Where definitive political moments initiated by other "non-Congress" political movements have been included in the official telling of South Africa's liberation history, they are largely accompanied by an erasure of those movements' contributions.
It is, for example, no small matter that the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, one of the most singularly defining moments in the liberation struggle, is known as Human Rights Day.That the anti-pass campaign was led by Sobukwe and the newly formed Pan Africanist Congress is downplayed. So is the fact the PAC were a group of Africanists who broke away from the ANC in 1958 for, among other reasons, the 1955 adoption of the Freedom Charter, seen at the time as the moderate alternative to the anti-pass movement.
Like Zimbabwe's "patriotic history" in which a complex history of nationalism is reduced to a three-part history of armed struggle led by Zanu-PF, the ANC's own official history has reduced the complex liberation history to the history of the Freedom Charter and its realisation by the Congress movement. What is hoped for is something beyond a shallow "ANC vs PAC", or "Mandela vs Sobukwe" debate, but rather that our history in general and our liberation struggle in particular is told in its full complexity.
All South Africans, not just "born-frees" like myself, should be able to interrogate the evolution of various political traditions and modes of resistance. While we may appreciate that the ANC is Africa's oldest liberation movement, it is not the only one.
• Chigumadzi's forthcoming book, These Bones Will Rise Again, reflects on Zimbabwe's de facto coup

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