Where history is a victor's tale

South Africa's new black government is reexamining the long-held Afrikaner version of the country's history.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For a small sheep-ranching town, Calvinia has a big museum. It takes up half a block on the main street of this one-horse town located on the high South African plains. Dedicated to Calvinia's pioneering Afrikaner forefathers, the two-story museum contains the usual cherished detritus of white colonial life: daguerreotypes and stiff-necked linen shirts, bone china and farm implements.

Only one artifact relates to South Africa's black majority: a photo of four Africans. Under it is the caption: "The murderer, with his family." Says Calvin Smith, Calvinia's new black mayor, "When visitors come, I take them to the grave of our freedom fighter, Abraham Esau," who fought English and Afrikaner colonists. "He was a great man, but you won't find anything about him in the museum."

Apartheid ended officially four years ago, but across South Africa, the icons of the country's past point exclusively to the white experience. None of the established museums celebrate, for example, Albert Luthuli, South Africa's first black Nobel Peace Prize laureate; the achievements of Xhosa farmers or Venda artists; the Zulus side in the Battle of Blood River; or the beauty of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC).

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When he launched the Robben Island Museum last year, former inmate Nelson Mandela scorched the country's museums and monuments with criticism that 97 percent of them continue to glorify "mainly white and colonial history." "Even the small glimpse of black history in the other [3 percent] is largely fixed in the grip of racist and other stereotypes," President Mandela said. He seemed to have in mind the two national museums that bookend the lovely, leafy avenue that runs in front of the country's newly multiracial parliament.

The South African Cultural Museum is housed in a former slave lodge, yet until recently it contained not a single exhibit on slavery. Instead, its displays carried the same old European clothes, china, and farm implements. Quite separate are the anthropological exhibits relating to black Africans and the country's most ancient residents, the Bushmen; these are housed in the South African Museum, lumped in with other wild curiosities - birds, fish, and animals.

An irate Mandela asked: "Can we afford exhibitions in our museums depicting any of our people as lesser human beings, sometimes in natural history museums usually reserved for the depiction of animals?"

This month, the government introduced its Cultural Institutions Bill, under which several old-time museums will be amalgamated and rationalized, releasing funds for use in a number of Legacy projects to celebrate the African struggle against colonization and apartheid. That means a Mandela museum in the president's home district of Umtata, more money for Robben Island, and monuments to the Zulus slaughtered by Afrikaners at Blood River.

Not that the new government always gets it right, either. In a 1996 speech, deputy president Thabo Mbeki lamented the supposed extinction of the Southern Bushmen, known as the Khoi and the San. The extinction theory was espoused by apartheid promoters for decades.

But, in fact, the KhoiSan population is alive, if not well. Their numbers were decimated by disease, genocide, and ethnocide earlier this century, and the tattered remnants became invisible when the apartheid government reclassified these aboriginals as mixed-race coloreds in the 1950s. Now, a Canadian sociolinguist, Nigel Crawhall, working with the South African San Institute, has located several hundred people speaking the ancient Bushman languages.

"They're not hard to find," Mr. Crawhall said. "All I had to do was get in my car, drive north, two hours, get out and say, 'Hi, my name's Nigel.' They are in very predictable places."

Bushman pride is gaining momentum in the country and, as a result, museums are under attack.

In 1911, in the apparently complacent expectation that the Bushmen would soon be extinct, South African Museum curators made plaster casts of the bodies of 12 Bushmen for use in a still-life known as a diorama. That diorama is still on display. There is pressure to move it to the Cultural Museum, to be housed with artifacts from the white population, and to use it to celebrate the continued existence of the country's first people, despite attempts to exterminate them.

As dismal as the current situation is, "times are changing," according to Musa Xulu, South Africa's deputy director-general for arts and culture. One catalyst has been the tremendous interest among war history buffs from Commonwealth countries in next year's centenary of the Anglo-Boer war.

The war was the crucible of Afrikaner, or Boer nationalism; 28,000 Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. The Mandela government has not helped organize the centenary events because the role and losses of Africans in the war have not been respected in history-telling. But in a recent background paper, the National Party's Anna van Wyk has acknowledged that 14,000 blacks also died in those camps. "There is a lot of goodwill on the part of the National Party," Mr. Xulu said.

Still, the ghost of apartheid sits heavily on the telling of history in South Africa. Mahmood Mamdani, an internationally known political scientist from Uganda, was hired in 1996 by the University of Cape Town to run its Centre for African Studies. He caused an uproar this year by criticizing the design of a first-year course in African studies. "The course material reflected the South African view that this country is not part of Africa, that Africa begins north of the Limpopo River," South Africa's border with Zimbabwe, Mr. Mamdani said. The syllabus also did not include publications by any African intellectuals.

"They're teaching as though Africa had no intelligentsia of its own," said Mamdani, a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. "These guys here in South Africa are coming out of a colonial experience and colonial powers are threatened by a native intelligentsia because it threatens the colonists claim to tutelage."

There's dissatisfaction with the teaching of history in the lower grades, as well. Social worker Ania Rosenworth is less than impressed that her two pre-teen daughters are taking part in a Voortrekker weekend organized by their school for late November. "We're going to dress up in bonnets and sleep in tents," said 12-year-old Clarissa, excited by the prospect.

The Voortrekkers were Afrikaners who got fed up with interference from the British colonial government in the Cape, particularly over the government's decision to end slavery. Their "Great Trek" by wagon cart into the interior in the 1830s was relatively unremarkable in pioneer terms, but was successfully mythologized this century to bolster Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid.

"My concern is about the relevance of the Voortrekker experience today," Ms. Rosenworth said. "Maybe the recent work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is more relevant. I think the schools are still teaching a skewed form of history."

Gail Weldon agrees. As principal subject adviser on history to the Western Cape department of education, she has been fighting an uphill battle to change what is taught in the province's schools. She and schoolbook publisher Andre Proctor said teachers from all races continue to cling to the three great myths of apartheid:

* The Bushmen became extinct after the whites' arrival.

* Blacks migrated into South Africa at the same time as the whites. Given the alleged extinction of the Bushmen, the Afrikaners could claim to be as indigenous as the blacks.

* Wars between Africans in the eastern part of the country, sparked off by the great Shaka Zulu, caused de-population of huge swaths of territory. This depopulation myth justified the Voortrekkers' claim that they did not dispossess anyone of land when they settled the interior.

Schools are "still awash" with history books presenting these views, Ms. Weldon said. Schools can't afford new texts so, to compensate, Weldon encourages teachers to ignore the old texts and use original source material.

If, for example, the lesson is about the Bantu education system introduced in 1953 to deliberately undereducate blacks, Weldon suggests the following original sources: speeches by apartheid cabinet ministers introducing Bantu education in 1953 and expanding the use of Afrikaans in schools in 1976; oral history from students who went through the Bantu system; and first-person accounts and police reports on the 1976 Soweto uprising sparked by frustrated black students.

"So the children would be working with the raw material of history, just as a historian would," Weldon said. "They'd come up with their own interpretation." Part of the struggle to undo apartheid is "to create responsible citizens who will recognize bias and propaganda."

There is some concern that South Africa's new government will be as prone to propagandizing the past as was the old. It didn't help when a small group of ANC officials tried last month to stop publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which accuses some ANC members of apartheid-era atrocities. The attempt failed and now ANC grass-roots members are criticizing those party officials for trying to censor the first reliable history of the apartheid era.

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