Last Sunday, I did two very South African things. I went to see the Voortrekker Monument (1), and got offended by a fellow South African (2).
Let’s start with (1) and answer the first obvious question: what was I doing there? Well, my parents were visiting and we needed something to fill the day. The options aren’t great in Pretoria, and we were curious about this famous landmark none of us (being “souties” from Natal) had ever visited before.
I love history because my father loves history – he passed the disease onto me – and I studied it throughout school and for five years at university.
Being a student of history requires taking the proverbial red pill, seeing the matrix, and accepting that everything we think we know about the past (and thus, the present) is a construction. This makes it difficult to talk about memorialisation, or heritage, or who was right or wrong – or anything, really! – without obsessively prefacing every phrase with the caveat that you know your words can’t really be trusted. (Heidegger, is that you?). But I will refrain from doing so here.
Anyway, we found ourselves at the Voortrekker Monument last Sunday.
It is an imposing place. Impressive. One of the few where your brain reminds you that you know the word “edifice”. The art-deco inspired walls vault high overhead and, once inside, the lofty dome above watches over a sacred-feeling space.
I loved being there, though was exhausted by my own brain trying to sift through the layers of reality that shape the place and its selective presentation of the past. And of course, it is emotionally draining to be confronted with the suffering experienced by those long dead. From the Piet Retief delegation massacre, to the Battle of Blood River – this history is marked with violence.
For the sake of readability, I’ll limit myself to saying one bad thing and then one good thing about the history side of it, and then I’ll move on to (2), the moment I was deeply offended by one of my countrymen.
One bad thing: An information board with a timeline of South Africa’s past which, for the section 1948-1994, had a single line: “Afrikaner-dominated politics” … Really? You think that about covers it?
One good thing: All the love and respect for the ‘vrouens’ of the Trek. As memorials go – which is, usually, horrendously – the Voortrekker Monument is fairly balanced on gender grounds.
Onto (2). I was floating along the smaller murals on the lower level, when my dad came over to me and told me the following story: He had just been standing next to a father and daughter looking at a frieze depicting a child about to be killed by a warrior. The man said to the little girl, who was about six,
“You see, the blacks wanted to kill the white people and send them out of the country. They always have. They still do.”
Hearing this story, I burst into flame. I am burning now as I write about it.
It is interesting but not important to note that this man was very likely a soutie like us – my dad said he spoke English without a trace of Afrikaans accent. So, if it is pain from deep memory that causes races to hate one another, in this case and on that particular spot the man was stealing someone else’s line.
We couldn’t find them again – I like to think I would have said something to that father if we had. The little girl, perhaps, went to school on Monday, sat next to her friend Zanele, and remembered her father’s words. Here is the image that, perhaps, she held in her head.
I have very strong views on parenthood that boil down to this: there is no greater influence one can have on the trajectory of humankind than to create a new human and prepare it for interactions with others. Parents are the curators of the soul of our species to a much greater extent than are childless adults. You can teach your daughter to love history or teach her to fear black people. It is entirely up to you.
South Africa is a country defined by trauma, something which we carry around with us every day. For many, this is grounded in personal memories of discrimination and hate. But what about the likes of my generation and younger who were born onto the crest of the Rainbow Nation narrative? Where did we get our trauma from?
Let’s ask Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets. He says it much better than I could.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
This Be the Verse, 1971
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)