Alistair Cooke said in one of his Letters from America (which was broadcast on the BBC for 58 years) that it was a cruel mistake to judge a man outside his time.

Regrettably, in both South Africa and America, it has become common to do just that. Worse, there is seldom any mention of how times have changed, often for the better.

Today, in the United States (US), there is angst about and even rejection of founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that they owned slaves, that because they were racist their attributes are suspect and should be minimised.

What is not said, presumably because it is politically incorrect, is that in the 18th century most Europeans in America were racist. In the mid-19th century at the time of the Civil War that was still the case. Abraham Lincoln was politically savvy in framing the war as a fight to preserve the union. He did not describe it as a campaign against slavery because he knew few northerners would rally to that cause. Only two years into the war, after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, did America’s Civil War become an anti-slavery crusade.

The contemporary attack on statues and history that is deemed problematic began with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Its American analogue is hauling away Confederate monuments under the Black Lives Matter rubric. In both cases, chaos and mob violence is excused in the name of a higher calling for racial justice.

A new set of winners

George Orwell wrote that ‘history is written by the winners’. In both South Africa and the US, the statue vandals reveal a new set of winners. South Africa’s political elite, the African National Congress, did almost nothing to challenge University of Cape Town hotheads who argued that Rhodes, as the paramount colonialist, had to go.

In the US, the revisionist winners are black local officials and their liberal white allies who displaced the Confederate sympathisers and their successors who had held sway in the south for a century.

The revised narrative emphasises the evils of slavery and continuing white privilege. Slavery is equated to Nazi genocide. Few voices rise in honour of the 750 000 men who served the Confederacy, 90% of whom did not own slaves.  

Robert E. Lee, now reviled as a treasonist defender of slavery, had been revered as a man of honour and dignity. Before the outbreak of fighting, President Lincoln had offered Lee the command of northern armies. Dwight Eisenhower displayed his portrait in the Oval Office.

The American Civil War was just that, two halves of the same country taking up arms against each other. Unionists and Confederates were Americans who, for 80 years, owed allegiance to the same constitution, which itself codified the institution of slavery. The declaration of independence was the work of a southerner, Thomas Jefferson.

Northerners were hardly paragons of virtue. William Tecumseh Sherman, after Ulysses Grant the most illustrious Union general, refused to allow black soldiers to serve as combatants in his army. He scorned the proposition of racial equality.

Considered contraband

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, escaped slaves entering Union lines were considered contraband – property with a cash value. Free blacks enjoyed only limited freedoms in the north and could vote in only six of 25 northern states.

Just as removing Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus did nothing to improve the black pass rate at the university, the toppling of Lee and other Confederate statues will not ameliorate police brutality or redeem George Floyd. On the contrary, destruction of property by protesters prompts calls for law and order.

Racial equality has not been fully achieved but the advances in both South Africa and the US are huge. Apartheid is long gone, majority rule a reality. In the US, a black man was twice elected president, holding office for eight years until 2017. Eighty percent of the immigrants seeking refuge in the United States are not white. Progress is palpable.

Redress for a past some find distasteful should not be an angry assertion of identity politics. Rather, there should be a contextualizing of old statues and putting up new ones.

Denies the past

Civil War scholar James Robertson argued that removing Confederate monuments obliterates history and denies the past. ‘We live,’ he said shortly before his death in November 2019, ‘in an age of idiocy where intolerance triumphs over reason.’

‘Any nation,’ he warned, ‘that forgets its past has no future.’

George Orwell, a man of the left, wrote this warning in his dystopian novel, 1984: ‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered.’

Orwell’s words should be heeded and all of us should look deeper into history.

*Five of Barry Wood’s forbears served the Union in the American Civil War.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch