Will we ever learn?

A leader in The Natal Daily News of the 15th January, 1949, though lacking the authority of a Judicial Commission, was of a very thoughtful nature and was representative of much opinion at the time. It read:

“These riots stem directly from our communal shortcomings which have been both material and spiritual. On the material side it is the flat failure to deal with the harsh facts of physical existence that has prepared sections of the community to react with murderous violence when certain stimuli are applied. When people are ill-housed, packed into congested areas, deprived of proper transport, subject to political frustration and some degree of economic exploitation, then the ground has been well prepared for terrorist outbreaks. When the particular people so treated are people whose way of life has been changed utterly in little more than a generation, the danger is multiplied. On the spiritual side, in turn, the faults are equally obvious – and equally black. Our politics are deeply sectionalised, our outlook is coloured with prejudices and discriminations. There are natives who can pretend, not without some foundation, that any anti-Indian measures they take can earn the covert sympathy of many Europeans and are justified by their harsh words. “Hatred has been sown and the harvest, though dreadful and shocking, should not surprise us.’

These words appear in the regimental history of The Durban Light Infantry, vol 2 by AC Martin (p423). This concerned the relationship between South African black and Indian, both resident in Durban. There were said to be 700 black African refugees ‘at Jacobs Native Location and at Lamontville. There had been instances when Indians attacked Africans. At Clairwood a mob fell upon and killed 3 Africans. At Overport an African was shot by Indians who were patrolling the area in a car’ (p422). The immediate cause of the violence referred to above was an argument on 13 January between a young 14 year old black African and a slightly older 16 year old Indian shop assistant. When the latter hit the former, he fell through a window cutting his head. The following day, full scale conflict between the two groups erupted and the Durban Light Infantry was called to help restore order. It turned out that the rumour had spread that the young black lad had been decapitated… This reminded me of a seven year conflict we’d been told about in northern Ghana back in 2000, which was caused by an argument between two women over a chicken. And then in SA, during the 1914-1918 war, we have the attacks on German and other foreign residents simply because their home country was at war against the British Empire and then the sinking of the Lusitania – no consideration given to the value the foreigners had made to their new adopted country, which they now saw as home. Outbreaks of random violence seem a regular occurrence.

So, what was striking about the quote at the beginning? I had never heard about the 1949 troubles – it got buried in later troubles. We know of Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) followed by all those of the 1980s and 90s which merge and then the more recent xenophobic attacks. The other striking point was what the author saw as the causes of the conflict. How little we have learned from the past – despite and in spite of believing that ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘we should learn from the past.’ Why haven’t we? We seem to think each outbreak of unrest is unique, but history shows invariably it’s the same causes underpinning the violent outbreaks.

Lord Kitchener tried to circumvent this cycle by finding ways to improve the situation of the poorest in Egypt when he was in a position to do so. Reduce the wealth gap and provide people with opportunities to improve themselves economically, and through education, and they will likely be more content. He left before he fully achieved this, but I understand that in North Africa, he is looked upon more favourably than in the UK because he tried to improve the lot of those least able to initially help themselves because the systems were against them.

Rather than giving lip-service to learning from the past, isn’t it time we found a way to make it a reality?

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