President Cyril Ramaphosa chose Heritage Day on Thursday to recommend that ‘(monuments) glorifying our divisive past should be repositioned and relocated’ because ‘(building) a truly non-racial society means being sensitive to the lived experiences of all this country’s people’.
For defenders of the visible tokens of a doubtless divided – and very often divisive – past, there is perhaps some comfort in the president’s stopping short of urging the toppling of monuments that has become de rigueur here and elsewhere as a cathartic response to historical grievance.
He himself acknowledged the controversy in his address, noting the pushback of those ‘saying we are trying to erase our history’.
The dispute about monuments tends to be seen as reflecting an ideological divide – but you have only to read former British Conservative MP Matthew Parris’s eloquent argument in The Spectator of 13 June to appreciate that this is quite wrong.
Writing on the fate of the statue of Bristol’s Sir Edward Colston, Parris (who, incidentally, was born in South Africa) confessed that ‘there was something magnificent about the sight of the Bristol mob throwing into the harbour the statue of a man whose trade was notorious for throwing sick slaves with no monetary value into the sea’.
He went on to say that ‘if 1890s Britain was free to raise a monument to a man whom many of the residents of Bristol wished to salute, 2020s Britain should be free to raise two fingers to a man whose memory their successors hate’. This was ‘not an attempt to “erase history”, as disgruntled conservatives like to mutter’. (Significantly, two of the targets of his argument were Tory leader and prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.)
‘No,’ Parris said, ‘that statue was not about history but estimation. Our era is entitled to its own response. Far from this being a “writing out of history” it was a writing in of history.’
‘Hearts and spleens’
Seeing Colston ‘drowned by Bristolians in Bristol harbour, is to see art come out of the galleries and textbooks and tourists’ snapshots, and into our hearts and spleens’.
And this may shed some light on why the most remarkable monument to the colonial age, in South Africa and elsewhere, is one that, whatever anyone says, is not going anywhere except onward and upward.
It is of course the moveable feast that is the English language, the bearer today of much of the heritage Ramaphosa wills us to celebrate and acknowledge, from ‘aardvark’ to ‘zol’. It is, in its way, in our ‘hearts and spleens’, in Parris’s phrase, or, in Ramaphosa’s, central to our ‘lived experience’.
As 2020 marks the bicentenary of the arrival of the 1820 settlers a little short of two decades after Britain claimed the Cape from the Dutch for good, it is a fitting moment to recognise that the possibly well-meaning effort to reform the historical record as if that really will be good for us might actually sell us short, not by erasing history, but erasing our part in making it our own.
I am always surprised and impressed by South Africans’ collective contribution to the global lingua franca, amply reflected in the online Oxford Dictionary, where you will find, for instance, howzit, lekgotla, jol, Bantustan, skedonk, eina, aikona, yebo, tsotsi, verligte, verkrampte, umlungu, eish, moegoe, tenderpreneur, and – an apposite companion – voetsak.
A much spicier variety of linguistic flavouring can be sampled at the always rewarding site of the Dictionary of South African English. You can profitably lose yourself (and, in a way, find yourself) meandering through this repository and discovering the dynamic monumental heritage of English in southern Africa and its engagement with a great range of other languages in the region, and beyond.
Had they had any way of knowing of their contribution to this lasting endowment, the early English settlers would likely have been much pleased. Their descendants may be permitted a moment’s wry satisfaction; no repositioning or relocation in the offing, here (and the same, of course, is true of umpteen other colonial-era imports, from postage stamps to the Bible, and for much the same reason).
But if these things seem to confirm the brute fact of conquest, it is easy to overlook the consequences of the long engagement since.
Sol Plaatje is noted for translating Shakespeare into Tswana in the early years of the last century. But Shakespeare has travelled quite a journey in South Africa since. Consider the more recent interpretation by Elsies River-born Marxist and senior Western Cape police officer – a linguist at heart – Jeremy Vearey.
His ‘Ekstrêk uit Jeremy vannie Elsies (aka Moersespear) se play “Daai Manskap Hamlet vannie Manenberg’ continues a fine tradition:
To dala, or not to dala, dêt is de question!
To dala, or not to dala, dêt is de question:
Whêder ’tis mette vollene korêk in de mind to ve-sak
De okapis and pangas of bemesterende fortune,
Or to koeza die up against a sea of troubles
And by maaking plak vas vedalla them.
To witbene —to sitas,
No more; and by a sitas to say we vedalla
De kak-oppie-hart and de thousand bene swak maak
Dêt flesh is hoerkind to: ’tis a bewystuk
Sterkgevriet to be wish’d. To witbene, to sitas;
To sitas, perchance to vortja — ay, daa lêrie ding:
For in dêt sitas of witbene, what vortjas may come,
When we hêf skoffel’d om dis mortal coil,
Must give us halt-mette-salute — there’s de hosh
Dêt makes kak of so long life.
For who would bear de okapis and pangas of time,
De mapoeza’s wrong, de strekgevriet madoda’s gwarra,
De hart-kak of dispriz’d love, de dienesse se delay,
De sterkgevrietgeit of office, and de miskyks
Dêt staan-oppe-pos merit of th’unworthy kroon,
When he himself might his bek-hou make
Wit a bare okapi? Who would fokken laste dra,
To vesak and kak under a vedalaa’d life,
But dêt de kakbang of someting after witbene,
De franse grond, from whose grense
No madoda returns, foks-op de plak
And makes us rather dra daai laste we hêf
Than make us in our moer to others dêt we know fokol of?
Thus swak-kom gedagtes does make bangat mpatas of us all,
And thus the native hue of de kring’s besluite
Is ve-kak’d o’er wit de pale cast of moegoe gedagtes,
And poste of moerse kroon and krag
Wit dis kak their currents turn vedalla’d
And lose de name of kaberdien.
Here, you might say, a complex heritage lives and breathes.
If it neither celebrates nor repudiates colonialism, it arguably does implicitly refute decolonisation as the route to finding better truths about ourselves.
Vearey himself put it challengingly in a Heritage Day piece a few years ago when he wrote: ‘My heritage is oek in dié nuwe Suid Afrika important! Vra ‘n slag vir my wat my heritage is en ons celebrate dit saam met joune.’
In his speech on Thursday, all in English but for a few token greetings in other languages, Ramaphosa closed by urging South Africans to ‘appreciate that in practising our cultures freely and openly, and in speaking our native languages, we are reclaiming not just our heritage, but our pride and our dignity as South Africans’.
Remarkably, that heritage today is inextricable from one of the pre-eminent endowments of colonialism itself.
[Picture: “The British Settlers of 1820 Landing in Algoa Bay”, by Thomas Baines, 1853. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3737884]