Pure duty – An irony of history

Jan Smuts in September 1919 was returning for the first time to the area he had raided eighteen years before when fighting for the Boer republic. He wrote to Issie, his wife, telling her that ‘Now I go there to ask them to let the republic go. That is the irony of history, apparently contradictory; and yet both are in the way of pure duty. But people do not easily understand such choices.’

How do leaders of all kinds convince their followers that circumstances and situations have changed, requiring a different approach? Unfortunately, Smuts doesn’t give any suggestions and judging by the fact that he lost the election in 1924, he wasn’t very successful in his attempts. 

I can’t help but recollect when thinking about human behaviour and change that Marthe Kiley-Worthington believes it takes two generations of elephants for them to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. Is it the same for humans? Or are we more selective in our forgetting? How is it that many of the youth in South Africa today have little or no recollection of the struggles their parents went through in the ending of Apartheid? As far back as 2003 when teaching A level students in the UK about the Cold War etc, none of my students from Eastern Europe had any idea of life before 1991 – did their parents purposefully not share what they had been through?

This contrasts with friends across the globe who have come through the tail end of civil upheavals – comparing notes is fascinating and insightful. Yet our reactions and responses can be quite different to those of our parents’ generation. Some have struggled to make the transition to a more free and equal society while others have embraced the new world, with all variations in between. And yet, despite all this wealth of experience and first hand knowledge, we don’t always see (or want to see) the warning signs of society and countries getting themselves into similar twists… this strange amalgamation of past, present and future seem to play a part in how we respond to being warned of changed and changing circumstances. 

Bringing about lasting change is a slow process which many experts have written about. Yet, it still seems that a catalyst is needed to jolt us (some at any rate) to action. I wonder how elephants work through the process of overcoming the trauma their ancestors experienced?