They tell me that our brothers over there
Are defyin’ the Man.
We don’t know for sure because the news we get
Is unreliable, man.
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’,
But I’m glad to see resistance growin’.
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
South Africa was one of the first spoils of the British Empire in the scramble for Africa. Along with Egypt, this colony formed the cornerstone of Cecil Rhodes’ infamous Cape to Cairo mission*. Despite the early acquisition of South Africa by the Brits, we were not the first white people there. The Portuguese had rounded the (now seemingly ironically titled) Cape of Good Hope** back in 1488, but it was the Dutch East India Company that established the first permanent settlement at Cape Town in 1652. It was more than 150 years before the British Empire turned its gaze towards the southern tip of Africa, seizing the cape in 1795 to prevent it falling into the hands of the French. The Empire might have relinquished the colony at the end of the Napoleonic wars, were it not for discoveries of diamond and gold deposits in the unexplored hinterland, that convinced the British to stay. And so, the stage is set for a century of Anglo-Dutch conflict, predominantly over mining rights.
I always attempted to put myself in the shoes of an indigenous tribesman, perhaps Zulu or Ndebele, watching the scene unfold. Europeans fighting Europeans, over to whom your land belongs. And for some reason, they have left you out of the discussion. Bewilderment and rage in equal measure, I can only imagine. In this country, the feelings must’ve been similar for any Native American unlucky enough to witness European’s slaughtering each other over land rights in North America during the Seven Year’s War, or overhearing the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ rhetoric being spewed by true (albeit rather new) patriots at the outset of the American Revolution. The irony is palpable.
If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. We are experiencing the perfect storm of ignorance and indifference; a ferocious tide that acts to maintain the ‘ordinary’ status of racism. This is nothing new, of course, but becomes increasingly difficult to swallow as we accrue more and more history that highlight the errors of our past ways. Similar despair surfaces when I contemplate the current trend of European nations towards right-wing politics. If their is one continent that should know full-well the dangers of lurching to the right politically, it is Europe. And that history is far from ancient. The frequent recurrence of this rapid, collective amnesia is yet another hindrance that can retard the pace of change, or even result in the rolling back of previous advances.
Luckily the solution is simple: do a better job of teaching history (and critical thinking) in schools. I would wager the majority of UK schoolchildren could not tell you a single thing about the Boer War; where and when it happened, who it was between, the fact that the Brits had concentration camps long before the Nazis, etc. This failing is unacceptable, and when you consider that the failure is intentional, in order to cover up previous atrocities, the current state of our education system is almost too dire to bare. Predictions for the future trajectory of education are marred with uncertainty, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that progress will only come if we want it.
*I’m not sure which is more depressing, the idea that this kind of land-grabbing jingoism constituted foreign policy, or the fact that we actually pulled it off; at the height of empire, you could walk from Cape Town to Cairo without leaving British sovereignty… man oh man, the good ol’ days.
**Hope has long since left the southern peninsular of Africa. Apartheid is back in international news, Namibian separatists are fleeing a crackdown regime in their home country, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring Botswana, civil war fears have flared up in Mozambique again, and following the death of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is experiencing yet another wave of hyperinflation; in most countries $50 million will get you a half-decent holding midfielder, but in Cecil Rhodes’ former playground, it won’t even get you half a banana.