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?

King Lewanika and Suffragettes

King Lewanika of Barotseland died in February 1916. This led to a series of articles in the Cape Times, one being the front page of The Weekly Cape Times and Farmers’ Record, 18 February 1916.

The short article concludes: ‘It is also to be noted that Lewanika long ago settled the Suffragette question by a stroke of genius. It was ordained that once a year on one day, the head woman be permitted, in the presence of other women, to have full and free licence to criticise the Council of the nation without check or interruption. It is said that the head woman exercised this right with immense satisfaction, and that her criticism of the men was complete and scorching. In witnessing the discomfiture of the men on that glorious day the women forgot their wrongs and their rights.’

I wonder what the Suffragettes made of this? It would be interesting to know if the head woman gathered the views from a range of other women or if she only spoke for herself.

The power of the female voice as expressed in the article resonated with Ian Hamilton’s statement about women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal, and also Louis Botha’s attempts to find a way out for the Boer rebels who were being pressured by their wives to make a stand against the government in 1914. He resorted to offering options – imprisonment or government service leaving the men to decide which was the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

Given the general shortcomings in our democratic processes today, I wonder if our forebears did not miss a trick back in the day when women were demanding a greater say. Is there a clue in these past experiences to help give all marginalised a greater voice while preventing new discriminations? Democracy has never been for everyone, even in its first formation it was discriminatory and promoting one group above another does not solve the equality dilemma. Perhaps we can take something from the implied messages of these few instances commenting on the power of women before they were permitted to enter the Councils of men, and design a system that works for all, irrespective of gender or background. I keep dreaming…

Does the post office restrict progress?

Not too long ago, someone recently arrived from South Africa to Britain commented that the British post office was “holding back progress”. The person concerned was all for everything being done online. This got me thinking…

In Britain, there is still an operational post office and mail delivery system. Sadly, this is not the case in many African countries. I say ‘sadly’ as a number of people have commented to me about the pleasure they get when a letter or parcel (not a bill) pops through the door, in contrast to having another email to deal with. It therefore makes sense to do as much online, if there’s no operational post delivery service. However, many African countries are suffering from electricity shortages and outside of the major cities, access to computers and internet is still non-existent. Mobile or cellular phones, though, generally have good coverage but are only owned by a small group who can afford them.

Recent dealings with South Africa in particular are suggesting that the power shortages (load shedding as it’s called) is having a real impact on business – and many are turning to their phones (and Whatsapp) to communicate as email is a hassle to access on computer. Phones, however, are also reliant on electricity for charging and in many cases wi-fi drops out when there’s a power failure. I have noticed the South African National Archive catalogue is seldom available over weekends to search. Is this because the archive has a generator to keep things going during the week but not on weekends?

Poor connection is not just an African issues, over the past years it’s become noticeable in the UK too – internet connection is not as consistent as what it used to be and mobile phone companies have reduced services in some areas (notably on the London underground) to invest in other developments. Dips in power supply are also happening more frequently than in the past.

So, why are we trying to put everything online? Years ago, I gave up on electronic calendars/diaries. It took longer to load and find a free time for a meeting than digging in my bag for a paper diary and skimming it. I have also moved to a paper post-it type project planning system for keeping track of books I’m working on – computer updates deleting online post-its and slow connection etc again forced this move. And, how true it is, I’m not sure but a fair number of years ago it was already said that Russia was returning to the old tick-tick typewriter, as I refer to it, for recording sensitive information – online hacking was too much of a risk. Further, there was talk in the archive world of securing important documents on vinyl type surfaces as they could be read with a simple pin/sharp pointed prod running over the grooves and stored better than online systems which constantly had to be updated and material migrated to ensure continued access.

Yet, technology has its plus-points – I can communicate with people across the globe in ways I couldn’t do twenty years ago, we can share research, ideas and be more independent when it comes to international transactions. But as many say, there’s nothing that beats the personal connection when you can get it. And while I do enjoy peace, quiet and solitude as found in an archive or working at home without distractions, much of it on a computer, there is something to be said for interacting with people when giving a talk and doing the shopping or popping into the post office (as frustrating as the server can sometimes be). It’s a reality check – one of the things I love about going back to Africa and being out of the cities: a reminder of what is important in life. Turning to the phone and actually speaking with someone too, has allowed many a misunderstanding caused by email to be resolved. And I could go on about the benefits of non-online interactions over online.

As a teacher we were always advised to have contingencies in case the planned lesson didn’t turn out the way one expected. It was good advice on many an occasion. Experiencing how London came to a gridlock back in the day with the 7 July 2005 bombing and hearing of people having difficulties contacting each other in the USA on and after 11 September 2001 is sufficient evidence for me to keep paper and more traditional ways of communicating. On a more local level, just watch the frustration at the train exit or in the coffee shop when a person at the pay-point’s phone decides it needs to do its own thing rather than register the payment.

I really cannot see how making everything electronic is progress… and if that is progress, how do we justify it not being available to all? The wealth gap is growing as it is – is this indicative of progress? The comment coming from a fellow South African suggests to me an out-of-touchness with reality, and the masses (how many schools had to find non-electronic means of supporting students/pupils during the recent lockdowns – in all countries) and if that makes me a non-progressive, so be it.


For years now I have not carried an umbrella around with me. Instead I have a rain poncho in my bag which hopefully covers me and my laptop and books when I’m out and about. I’m yet to find the ideal rain keeper-off-er. Why I no longer use an umbrella is because there are so many inconsiderate people who do use them – it’s easier to dodge them and protect my eyes and hair not having one.

So, it was rather intriguing that on one of the few downpour days in London, I happened to be going through the Cape Times at the British Library only to discover a history of the umbrella. (p14, Saturday 1 August 1914 for anyone interested).

In short, it appears that umbrellas (including parasols) have been around for centuries – 3000 BC/E. There is/was a sketching of an Assyrian King being cooled by a parasol being held by a woman.

The article continues that the word umbrella derives from ‘uni bra’ and Johnson (presumably Samuel Johnson) described it as ‘a screen used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain’.

The parasol was back in the day, only for the monarch – is that why it plays such a prominent role in Ashanti festivals. We caught the Yam Festival back in 2002 in Ghana and I recall the impressive parasol indicating the chief’s presence.

By 1616, umbrellas were used in England as a luxury, made of feathers to represent water birds (why?). It was only during the reign of Queen Anne that oiled silk was used for umbrellas/parasols. In particular, they were chiefly used by women. They crossed the gender line in the 18th century when a Jonas Hanway, recently returned from Persia, was seen carrying one on London’s streets. In 1782, the first umbrella was seen on the streets of Scotland when Dr John Jameson had one in Glasgow following a visit to Paris.

It is said that the Portuguese navigators brought the umbrella to the north (France) from tropical countries. 1630 is the date given for umbrellas having whale bone handles and copper frames, and were so sturdy they were passed down from generation to generation weighing 3-4 pounds. They were covered with leather and oiled with silk.

In the 1770s, colourful taffeta parasols started to appear and in 1825 darker colours became fashionable, remaining popular to 1914.

How rapidly the life of an umbrella has changed since then. Now they come in all shapes and sizes, some able to cope with strong winds, others too flimsy, and I wonder how many get lost in a day. I’m still after an umbrella that is self-holding, as apart from it being a dangerous weapon, carrying one can get in the way of carrying other things, especially where both hands are needed, and many of us haven’t been trained to carry goods on our heads. By the time I realised this valuable skill, I was too old to build my neck muscles – I needed to start age 5 or 7. On the plus side, having to carry an umbrella might well reduce the number of people oblivious to others on the pavements because they’re so engaged with their electronic device. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I wonder how this article would have ended if it had been written after the 1914-1918 war – especially given the nature of the East Africa campaign where downpours and sun both wreaked havoc on all involved.

Maths and History

Not too long ago, I took a detour back to a previous role and read a book on teaching for teachers. Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck. The authors are all in Australia and working together as educationalists and mathematicians they explored how to make maths accessible and engaging having noticed a decline in the take up of maths as a school subject. For us, in South Africa in the late 20th century, it was compulsory to have maths to Matric or A Level equivalent if we wanted to go to university, irrespective of what you planned to study. What a good idea in retrospect as maths featured in so much, from the obvious in Economics to statistics in Sociology and Psychology and with hindsight, there’s the logic one develops through problem-solving which impacts on Philosophy, History and Law, amongst other subjects.

The concern though is that fewer people are engaged in studying maths or mathematics which is of concern as skills and knowledge is being lost. Working on a teaching programme in Tanzania brought this home very strongly where teachers got frustrated and turned to rote learning as they did not understand what they were teaching. We were looking at ways to overcome this and the project is now being implemented in Rwanda. We had similar challenges with teaching in the UK, although then not to the extreme it might now be – preparing students for higher education while meeting business needs. So, it seems the issue the Australians have been trying to deal with is not unique. It’s global.

Taking place over a number of years (yippee – it was not a simple 3 year project to fix the world of education), the authors gathered and processed evidence, listened to pupils, students and teachers, engaged with subject experts, produced resources and continued to monitor, evaluate and collect evidence. The results are collated in this book which focuses on 3 case studies: my favourite being the tracking of bees (Bees with Backpacks) to see how they communicate with the hive… sadly the book doesn’t say how they managed to put small enough tracking devices onto individual bees. There is also a case study on Stargazing and another on 3D. It’s worth looking at the publisher’s website as there are links to resources and other references which you wouldn’t get on other sites. There are also related downloads on Academia and there’s the institution’s website with all the videos etc.

Bottom line, if you haven’t yet worked it out, is that I was rather taken with this book – it might be a bit academic and scientific for some but the message is clear – maths is important and there are ways to make it relevant to everyday life within the curriculum (and questions whether the curriculum – across the globe – actually needs rethinking). Now to the link with history…

My eureka moment as an historian needing or using maths was a module on my MA in 20th century history taught by Tony Gorst at Westminster University. Back in 1996/7 he gave us a table of British politicians and the universities they’d studied at along with the degree they’d undertaken. The unit was post 1945 politics (incl Suez). For someone recently arrived from the ‘colonies’, this was rather an eye-opener on many fronts but it was only when I started teaching and we needed to embed maths, English and IT into all aspects of the curriculum that I really saw the value of Tony’s source analysis exercises. The maths aspect was secondary, no fuss was made about the subject, but it was there and integrated seamlessly into what we were looking at. Since then, maths regularly features in my work as an historian – have you seen the tables and info from the Pike report on the Great War in Africa website? Trying to reconcile numbers of dead and buried in Africa as part of the CWGC investigation into non-commemoration and more recently economic issues in South Africa during World War 1.

Now, I don’t expect maths teachers and researchers to make specific resources on historical topics, but I do support initiatives to make maths more accessible and less daunting for students. And for this, Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck is most definitely worth exploring.