Airbrushing Struggle History

By Dale T. McKinley · 8 Apr 2010

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Picture: Fazila Farouk
Picture: Fazila Farouk

If there is anything that South Africans should have been reminded of over the past few weeks it is that what happens and is said in the present is inextricably linked to the past. In general terms history is, and will always be, a terrain of interpretative contestation. However, in the more specific context of a country with a liberation history infused with serious ideological, organisational, social and economic polarities, contemporary understandings and presentations of that history, especially by those in positions of power, represent much more than just an intellectual exercise or political grandstanding.  

At first glance, the two most recent catalysers of such a crucial reminder – the ongoing furore over the historic, political and organisational meaning and ‘ownership’, of the ‘kill the boer’ struggle song and events leading up to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre respectively - may appear to many as insignificant, a temporary and politically constructed ‘storm in a teacup’ dished up by one Julius Malema. Take a second, deeper and more informed look however and what becomes clear is that what lies behind the public ranting of South Africa’s Bonaparte-in-waiting is a much longer and consistent pattern of selective interpretation and manipulative presentation of struggle history by the ANC itself.

In a draft statement prepared for its ‘National Anti-Corruption Seminar’ last month, the S.A. Communist Party correctly noted that: “ … most liberation and democratic projects have been greatly undermined by the practice of corruption, rent-seeking and various other practices wherein in those countries the political elite hijacked the democratic project for their own narrow outlook.” What should have been added to this is that most ex-national liberation movements, now safely ensconced in the seats of state power,  have shown themselves to be equally adept at hijacking the histories of national development and liberation struggles for their own narrow political, ideological and class ‘outlook’ and interests.

A brief perusal of the GCIS’s (Government Communication and Information System) official version of South African history reveals some historical obfuscation par excellence. Offerings on the mid-late 20th century period of struggles against apartheid only cursorily acknowledge the presence and actions/contributions of those outside the ANC and its Alliance partners. The section on the “first decade of freedom” completely excises the historical reality of the myriad political and social/community oppositions to the implementation of the ANC government’s neo-liberal policies and says nothing of the massive unemployment visited on the majority of South Africa’s poor or of the record increases in socio-economic inequality. 

A similar kind of ‘history’ is presented as part of the ANC/government-initiated project, ‘South African History Online’, which provides much of the material for ‘new’ history curricula in the nation’s primary and secondary schools (grades 4-12). Grade 9 students will not learn of the central role of the South African Students Movement (SASM) in the 1976 student uprisings nor of the serious and sustained conflicts that occurred during the 1980s between the ANC/UDF adherents and those belonging to other liberation movement organisations. Indeed, a student relying on the ‘lesson’ dealing with anti-apartheid resistance in the 1980s will most likely come away thinking that the only organisations that struggled for freedom were the ANC, UDF, COSATU and the SACP.

In the practical world of politics, the ANC has long followed the same pattern of trying to effectively privatise South Africa’s struggle history. As far back as the early 1960s, the ANC had already indicated publicly that its primary organisational goal was to become the “sole legitimate representative” of the oppressed in South Africa, a goal that by its very nature was/is irrationally exclusivist and anti-democratic. Symptomatic of this conscious desire to construct (and thus occupy) such a self-aggrandising historical role was the ANC National Executive Committee’s incendiary statement (in 1983) in response to the formation of the ‘National Forum’ (a collection of liberation groups and activists outside of the ANC-Alliance), The ANC leaders accused the National Forum of “posing as socialists ... and defenders of Black pride” who “seek to divide the people and divert them from the pursuit of the goals enshrined in the Freedom Charter. Through their activities, these elements show hatred for the Charter and mass united action, no less virulent than that displayed by the Pretoria regime.”

Twenty five years later, and the ANC was at it again. Its leaders went into an apoplectic fit when some members who split from the ANC decided to name their new political party, the ‘Congress of the People’ (after the landmark event in 1955). Against all empirical and contextual evidence, the ANC claimed that the name “belonged” to them because it was the ANC (and its allies) who conceptualised, initiated and ran it. While the very first call for the ‘Congress of the People’ came from ANC stalwart ZK Matthews in 1953, the call explicitly stated that such an event should be representative of, “all the people of this country irrespective of race or colour to draw up a Freedom Charter …” As ex senior SACP and ANC leader, Raymond Suttner, reminded the ANC at the time, “no one has a patent on South Africa’s freedom struggle … the ANC’s proprietary statements on this matter run counter to the conception of the congress itself, which was devised as a mass campaign that led to the creation of the Freedom Charter.”

Amongst those who live in South Africa, there still remains much talk about, and anguish over, reconciling past and present. Whatever we might think about the more immediate prospects for such ‘reconciliation’, for there to be any progress on this front we must surely accept that it cannot be exclusively about dealing with divisions based upon racial exclusivity, conflict and its socio-political constructions. It also has to encompass an honest exposure of, and dealing with, the divisions and conflicts engendered in and through the liberation struggle itself. A large part of these arose from the attempts by the ANC and its allies to hegemonise the liberation struggle. In a linked sense then, the kind of ‘historical memory’ we have predominately been asked (told) to recover - as part of the process of ‘reconciliation’, ‘nation building’ etc. - is only partial. 

In turn, this serves to solidify a partial and distorted understanding and telling of struggle history and consequently, the agendas of those who seek to channel it “into an authorised, singular collective memory and to fix it in a particular form; to turn it into an historical truth.” Not forgetting the past means not forgetting every aspect of that past. It does not mean cherry picking those aspects of history that suit a particular political, organisational or ideological agenda and airbrushing those/that which do not fit into that agenda. 

One of the key lessons of the rich and varied anti-apartheid and anti-capitalist struggles in South Africa is that history cannot be allowed to be determined and interpreted predominately by those who have political and socio-economic power. However if we have been paying close attention to South Africa’s more recent history, we can see that those in and with power, continue to do precisely this. An airbrushing of any history unilaterally posits what is of historical value and thus what is of value in the present and future and how the present and future are understood and seen. Have we learnt the lesson?

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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Rory Short
13 Apr

Hijacking Struggle History

You quote from a draft statement prepared for the S.A. Communist Party

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