The axe forgets

On my first visit to South Africa, shortly after the end of apartheid, I had something of a disagreement with a white bus driver in Pretoria (Tshwane). He absolutely refused to speak English. I speak no Afrikaans, but remembered just before he threw me off the bus, that South Africa has 11 official languages. I switched to Setswana and he gave me my ticket. He no doubt had his reasons. Probably his great-grandmother had died in a British concentration camp.

That was comparatively trivial, but it shows the past doesn't just vanish. It leaves wounds, guilt, ngozi and desire for revenge. We saw that on a horrifying scale in Yugoslavia, a region which had for most of the 20th century been politically united and claimed to be proud to describe itself as having “six republics, with five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, but one desire: FREEDOM”.

In fact, the Serbs had more than their fair share of power, under a Serbian king 1919-40 and still under the communist federal republic for nearly 50 years after 1945.

Communist Yugoslavia worked as long as Tito, a Croat, was president. After that, the festering memories of old enmities, old feuds and old atrocities burst out and we saw the genocidal conflict in the 1990s, Croats against Serbs, Muslims against Christians, minorities seeking independence, and all this justified by reminders of seven centuries of conflict, going back at least to the battle of Kossovo in about 1381.

Think of that. Resolving our historical grievances will be easy compared to their problems. Our memories of grievances don't even go back two hundred years. The main ones are:

1. In the last 10 years: torture, murder displacement and destruction, including Murambatsvina and the dispossession of farm workers

2. Gukurahundi

3. the atrocities committed by both sides in the liberation war.

4. There is no longer a local white community here, but there are structural injustices instituted by the colonialists and often maintained by our recent rulers for their own advantage. But we must admit the Coloured community still face some discrimination.

5. Admittedly the colonialists kept memories of Shona/Ndebele conflict alive, but if there had been no conflict there would have been no pretext for Gukurahundi. We are so intermarried and interconnected now that we could not expect many claims for compensation for Ndebele raids, but they are part of some Shona memories.

Ask about earlier history, and sensible people will say something like “but we had ancestors on both sides”. We would not expect our Truth Commission to hear many complaints more than two centuries old. There may be effects of earlier conflicts under our carpet, but nobody alive today has kept the memories clear enough for us to be able to deal with them. Perhaps we will find that many of us, or our ancestors, have been both axes and trees, though maybe at different times. That will be another story.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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