A sense of History

I am in the Cape of Good Hope for two weeks, part holiday and part business. The weather has been variable – three days of glorious early winter sun and clear blue skies and right now it is raining.

Eddie Cross

Our hosts say it is the first heavy rain they have seen for two years. But the weather changes fast here – in a few hours we had blue skies again and calm water.

But we did not come to the Cape for the weather – it is lovely at this time of the year as the trees shed their summer leaves and Autumn sets in. Bright clear days with a slight chill to the air. What strikes me is the sense of history everywhere. We had a family lunch yesterday at a place that had been a watering hole for over 200 years. They take care here not to destroy the past, but to build on it and this is something we could all benefit from.

Driving into town we pass the Rhodes memorial and the centre of town is dominated by the Buildings of the House of Assembly and the Groote Kirk where the Dutch Reformed Church was born. Unlike many parts of the world, here history is on every corner, celebrating the days when the first white Africans came to the continent 600 years ago. Like colonisers in many parts of the world they wiped out the majority of those they found living here to create space for themselves. The Americans and the Australians did the same.

When changes come, as they must inevitably, the one thing you cannot erase is the history of the place where you live. You cannot wipe it out or obliterate its features – they make up what we all are and we need to come to terms with these things and get on with our lives. We all are a blend of our collective past.

My family in South Africa have a keen sense of the past. Our forefathers came as migrants from Europe some 142 years ago. We are now spread across the world and last night the Cape branch of the tribe told us how they had been all tested for their DNA records. These were fascinating – Irish, Scots, Danish, Jewish and even English strains of DNA were identified. I am sure that if we could trace our ancestry back far enough, we would all end up in the North East corner of Africa which seems to have been the cradle of mankind.

On one day when I was doing some business, we had an hour to kill and I saw a signpost that read “Jewish Holocaust Museum”. We turned down a side street and parked and spent a fascinating hour in the Museum. I was familiar with the events of the period 1930 to 1945 but it still came a shock to be reminded of the time when the German State mounted its onslaught on Western Europe and in doing so laid the foundations for what has become the world’s most infamous Genocide. I say most infamous because it was not the first time, nor the last and to their credit the South African Jewish community had taken care to make the point that racial discrimination often leads to activities of a genocidal nature – spurred and encouraged by a concept which says that a certain variety of humanity is somehow less than human.

But coupled with the museum on the holocaust was another museum celebrating the contribution of the Jewish Community to South Africa. Again, what a story. At its peak the Community was no more than 120 000 individuals but their impact in all spheres of national life has been exceptional. When Rhodes spotted the first Jewish business being opened in the City of Bulawayo – he remarked to his companion, “we are going to be OK, if the Jews are coming, this settlement will be a success”.

My family has German blood in it – but is mainly Irish in extraction. In Ireland we have been killing each other for centuries – simply based on a weird view of religion. My daughter in law’s father once remarked to me that he “could recognise an Irish Catholic at 200 yards”. We of course are Irish Protestants by extraction.

The Genocide Museum reminded all visitors that this was not an isolated practice – the displays pointed to other historical episodes – all of which involved millions of people being massacred. The Kurds, the American Indian Tribes, whole Tribes in Africa, the Koi San in this very place – hunted like wild dogs. South Africa’s wilderness time in Apartheid, mounted by a people who were themselves oppressed and once driven out of Europe on religious grounds. A people who could just as easily put together a Museum to the Afrikander people in South Africa and their amazing achievements in all spheres of life.

So what do we do with our histories? Do we hide them? Do we deliberately try to forget the reality of what we have done in the past, or do we take them and make these vast mistakes (as Mugabe called the Genocide of Gukurahundi) and simply go on with our lives as if they never happened? The Germans have a Genocide memorial in the heart of Berlin where it cannot be hidden, but they have a memorial to the German soldiers in the Second World War which few outsiders have seen but which is a place of memory for millions of Germans whose fathers and grandfathers fought for Hitler and the Nazi regime.

In Zimbabwe we have no memorials to the Zipra and Zanla and Rhodesian armies who fought for control of this country from 1965 to 1980 in what the Americans called a “low intensity Guerrilla War”. Like all wars between brothers this was a savage conflict in which there were few rules and many casualties, both physical and psychological. We have a hero’s acre dedicated to those who served the country well in the political movement known as the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) but this does not serve to remember the thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans who gave their lives for the cause they were fighting for – recognised or not.

We have Rhodes grave site, long a place of memory for a man who for good or bad, made an indelible imprint on this part of Africa in less than 23 years on the Continent. Next to him we have the Memorial to the Patrol of 37 men who tried to capture Lobengula as he fled north from his Capital City of Gubulawayo and who were wiped out by the Mbizo Regiment protecting the King. On that memorial we have the words “To Brave Men” which accolade came from, not the local white settlers but the proud men of the Mbizo Regiment.

When I visited the German Memorial to the German Soldiers who fought in the war between 1939 and 1945 it was just after the Wall had come down and nearly half a century had passed, yet every day they hauled away a truck load of flowers laid there the day before by German families. The Vietnam War was perhaps the most unpopular war in American History but the simple memorial listing the 53 000 men and women who died in that conflict is a place of memory every day for thousands for whom the name on the wall was a son or a distant relative.

It is important that we learn from our histories and make them the building blocks of our new societies. Enemy or friend we need to respect each other despite our histories. Brushing them under the carpet is not the solution – we need to deal with them and give each other the chance to remember in privacy what our forefathers have done – both good and bad. It’s good that we never forget the Genocides of history, precisely because they must never happen again.

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