Towards a new national narrative
Shepherd Mphofu and Zubeida Jaffer
Despite the attainment of democracy in 1994, South African children continue to understand their history as one which coincides with colonialism. The authors outline a way forward to tell a fuller story of the people of this part of the world.
South Africa’s transformative national narrative sprung from the intellectual strata. Way back in 1911 a South African lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered a lecture that gave intellectual stimulation to the decolonisation process. Seme’s address was part of a cultural and intellectual movement of writers, artists, religious and political leaders whose objective was to construct a counter-narrative to European modernity by defining African modernity. Professor Ntongela Masilela, a US-based South African academic has referred to this early initiative as the New African Movement and recorded these efforts in his book An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa. He defines this movement as stretching over a century from about 1862 (Tiyo Soga) to 1960 (Ezekiel Mphahlele). Similarly, the new democratic narrative, under considerable pressure presently was largely crafted by lawyers and politicians involved in the negotiations from 1990 to 1994. Will we draw on our past narratives, acknowledge the three major dominant narratives and craft a fourth way that moves us forward?
We need a simple story that acknowledges our failings, but also recognises our strengths. The narrative could run alongside the National Development Plan, spelling out what is expected of us all. The challenge in South Africa is to find the right words that will inspire us to understand what we have to do (right action) to live in a country and a continent that deserves to fully taste what it means to be free. Contestations around narratives could be intense.
How will we ensure that a new narrative will shift us as far away as possible from authoritarian control that some political and economic interests would favour? Through a broader story must come a simple statement that could make sense to a very wide constituency providing the youth especially with a clear context in which they could live and work towards a kinder and fairer South Africa and Africa. Finding the right words could inspire the right action and state of mind to move the country forward. This paper cannot pretend to have the answers but would like to suggest some possible elements of the story that could help deepen our understanding and develop a different, more confident mind set.
In 2017, anthropologist James Suzman published his book, Affluence without Abundance, in which he argued that the Bushmen give us a pretty good insight into how Homo sapiens lived for 95 or 98 percent of human history. European colonialism enjoyed its heyday for 400 odd years and while the Bushmen’s way of life prevailed for at least 70 000 years. He made an extraordinary observation that: “If we judge a civilisation’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history.”
Suzman argued that humanity was on the edge of change (2017):
“Something fairly fundamental is shifting. We have all these big new questions about sustainability, about whether the world can continue as it is. Looking back at how the most sustainable cultures in human history organise themselves might give us some idea of how to organize ourselves in the future.”
He further said that some settlers were quietly impressed. The expressed admiration for their extraordinary knowledge of local flora and fauna and the ease with which they procured “remedies” for all sorts of different ailments from the plants around them. Why was this an important body of research for the development of a new national narrative? The Bushmen were spread across the Southern African mountains. In South Africa, they are considered to be the first people based at the Cape and were referred to as KhoiSan. Over time they were known to intermingle with the Southern African Bantu (these were anthropological terms.) This intermingling over time resulted in the birth of a little boy in 1918 who was to grow up to become the most famous South African president and one of the most recognised leaders in the modern world. In 2018, the country stood poised to celebrate the centenary of his birth on 18 July. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s lineage was disclosed through DNA testing nearly 20 years ago and yet absolutely nothing has been done officially to pull this information into the national narrative. These tests proved that his maternal roots were KhoiSan and his paternal roots were Southern African Bantu. These two groups represent the largest collective of those who were dispossessed by European colonialism.
Academics could gather this story and delineate other key elements of a broader South African story that our children could eventually be schooled in. They should know and read Mhudi, the first novel written by an African. Bridget Thompson, editor of the soon to be published book Listening to Literature, A South African Canon, described Sol Plaatje as the father of modern South African literature. Mhudi, she said, preceded Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by four decades. More than 100 years ago, he also produced a foundational book on South African history and politics Native Life in South Africa, that has remained largely absent from current university curricula. She further referred to some of the grand poets.
One might expect, in our orally literate society, that South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018) would be a household name. Regrettably not. Neither is Mazisi Kunene (1930-2006), poet laureate before him and designated African poet laureate by UNESCO in 1993, nor is Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), affectionately known as Imbongi yesizwe jikelele (The poet of the nation as a whole). Nontsizi Mqwetho, a remarkable woman about whose life very little is known but whose poetry written in the 1920s and 1930s amazes and delights to this day, is familiar to an even smaller circle.
To conclude, these four elements taken together with Thabo Mbeki’s I am an African speech, provide some of the material needed to rescript a new and deeper narrative in and of South Africa.
In 2017, (name) Ndebele warned that this would take time. The formulation of a collective narrative had to be such that it drew on all elements of the historical experiences of those who make up the collective, he said. While in I am an African speech Mbeki seemed overly generous, his disappointment at how South Africa turned out to be cannot be magnified any further than his “two nations” speech. Besides, overtime, the economic beneficiaries of the current dispensation, remain the same as those who benefited during Apartheid and the historical narrative remains set into that epoch. The national narrative favours and is considered valid only as it goes as far as favouring the story of the arrival of the Dutch, and not how, before then, Africans lived. It seems not so much a promising journey unless we take seriously the whole project of decolonisation. It is only under a decolonised regime that the narrative could be sanitised and objectively capture a people’s history and being.