I was recently asked if I believe in continual remembrance. This was the first time I’d heard the phrase – clearly I’ve not been in touch with the news and general public discussion.
After a brief hesitation, I had to say yes – it hopefully keeps us from perpetuating the mistakes of the past. ‘Isn’t that political?’ was the response. It must be if we are serious about creating the world we want to live in and that those in the past were prepared to give their lives for. Naturally this conversation has been doing its rounds in my head since.
There are three issues at play here all interlinked, as far as I can see: continuity, remembrance and politics.
What are we remembering? Why should we remember? Why is remembering political?
Continuity is ongoing. It is not once a year on a particular day. As an historian of war, it’s probably easier to be in a continuous state of remembering the past than for others. Memorials, statues, telling stories around the fire of past leaders all help keep the continuity of memories, events and persons in our consciousness.
I’m a great advocate of keeping statues around especially of those who we believe did the wrong thing by our standards. Keep the statues (not necessarily in their original location) and avoid repeating what the individual did which offends. Invariably, the statue or memorial was erected for reasons other than what is causing offense and it would be good to explore those aspects before passing judgement. Yes, Cecil Rhodes may have been racist. He was a man of his time when many believed or behaved in the same way (and to be honest, many continue to do so today). He was also generous – Groote Schuur, Cape Town and Rhodes Universities, The Rhodes Foundation and scholarship: where would South Africa’s economy be today if it hadn’t been for Rhodes and his colleagues setting up De Beers etc? Rhodes loved Africa and saw potential. In his eagerness he made some bad decisions; who of us doesn’t?
Verwoerd and Apartheid – was what he did any different to what is happening today with the rise of nationalism and individual groups attempts to ensure their independence? I don’t agree with what he did but I understand why he did it. The question is – was there another way he could have achieved the same protection of his adopted people?
The First World War – the horror of the trenches and men going over the top. Generals maligned for using their men as cannon fodder. Soldiers are servants – they follow orders – those given by politicians and national leaders (yes, some soldiers assume both roles and take matters into their own hands, but I’m not talking of them as soldiers here as they fall into the political category). A sweeping statement I know, some are blood-thirsty and all that goes with it, but they’re in the minority. I can’t help but recall Lord Kitchener’s statement ‘A soldier’s duty is not to get killed’ – a point reiterated by an officer I heard talk at Sandhurst comparing Afghanistan to the Somme. I could go on…
Remembrance. It’s easy to fall into remembering what’s in front of us: The list of war dead on our memorials, the reason for the Bank or Public Holiday, if we’re aware of it. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was complaining about South Africa having two women’s days. The August date is for the contribution the women made to end Apartheid – Sharpville in particular.
Those often ignored and forgotten especially need to be remembered. A talk with a retired Archbishop of Africa brought this home when we were talking of the victims of Apartheid – all colours, genders and ages: those who went into exile and those family members who had to cope with the outfall back home, the young men, soldiers (both sides), forced into situations which scarred them for life, their families not aware of the wounds still suppurating below the surface manifesting in addiction, violent outbursts or depression.
These are the horrors to remember and to avoid in future, but we shouldn’t forget the positives which we can build on: the comradeship which crossed boundaries – the humanity of mankind (To be human is to be humane: Xhosa: umntu ngumntu ngabanye abuntu; Swahili: Mtu ni utu; Gikuyu: Mundu ni umundu*).
There are so many examples of this – sharing food in a foxhole, leaving medical supplies for prisoners, giving someone a drink or a place to lay their head for a time, keeping the horrors of one’s experiences from loved ones back home. Drawings of birds and animals, beauty, encountered along the way.
And finally, politics. When we think of the term, it evokes emotions often linked to elections and political parties or politicians. However, I look at politics in terms of the polity – ‘the form or process of civil government; organised society, state; condition of civil order’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). We/I have a role to play in the civil order and so everything I do has an impact – it’s political. I often recall the advice given to me by a teaching union representative back in 2009-2011 when I was bemoaning about government decisions around Further Education and our lack of influence. He told me over his 30 years of being a union rep that he’d learnt not to focus on the big things which appeared unchangeable but to rather do what felt right on the ground, in my immediate circle, and the butterfly effect would take care of the rest. These wise words have kept me from being overwhelmed on so many occasions – and goes to the heart of my politics. Treat others as I want to be treated. Memorials (including books and archives) remind me to remember those not mentioned and to remember them all.
* Mary Nyambura Muchiri, Papers on Languages and Culture: An African Perspective (2009)
Musa Victor Mdabuleni Kunene, Communal holiness in the Gospel of St John: The vine metaphor as a test case with lessons from African hospitality and Trinitarian theology (2012)