The Fear of Equality

It’s common knowledge that South African Native Labour Corps men who served in France during World War 1 were kept separated behind barbed wire fences and were not allowed to fraternise with the local populations. The men had to be supervised and controlled by white South African men who had experience of managing black labour in South Africa.

This scenario is often used to prove white South Africa’s racial tendencies.

Recently, I came across the following description:

Among other regulations, smoking was prohibited on duty and in public places. Alcohol was forbidden – except when prescribed ‘for medicinal purposes’ – and no member of the Corps was allowed even to enter an establishment which sold it. All letters were read by administrators, while a stringent system of chaperoning existed … The barbed wire fences around the camps served to keep the women in as well as the men out.

Yes, you read women, not black South African Native Labour Corps. Women, white, also denied the vote at the time were being treated in a similar way to black South African men.

The quote comes from “The Forgotten Army of Women: The Overseas Service of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps with the British Forces 1917-1921” by Diana Shaw in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle.

Isn’t it interesting how we shut off that which frightens us? We don’t want to engage with what we don’t know or fear.

Writing this I was reminded of an incident a good few years back now when I was still in almost full-time education. The BNP in the UK were looking as though they were going to do quite well in the general election and I was horrified at how colleges and others refused to invite BNP representatives to their institutions to be questioned by the students. It was acceptable to have the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidate visit and be challenged but not the group most feared. Ostensibly this was to ‘protect the students’, but what it did was increase curiosity and, at least, verbal support for the party – everything education leaders were trying to avoid.

Similarly, my initial intention as an historian was to study communism as, at school we’d been told this was what Apartheid was against. Communism was bad and our boys had to fight it. This made Nelson Mandela and others all terrorists. Other factors got in the way of my specialism, but I still hold a sideline interest in all things communist.

Today, as in years past, we continue to put people into camps until we’re sure about them – the Boer women and children, refugees, asylum seekers. Cross-dressers and others suffering from physical and mental differences get put in asylums or care centres, those who don’t follow our rules are put in prison… and yet others seem to languish because we’re too afraid to let them out having discovered they weren’t a threat to begin with.

Hiding people away and shutting them off from the mainstream doesn’t seem to me the best way of dealing with difference. Somehow we must find ways to engage – as the men working alongside the Women’s Auxilary Service and the SANLC found, we have more in common than not and together made working for a common goal more easily achievable.

Every time I experience new cultures and meet others who travel in the same way, it reinforces the need to cross barriers and engage. Understanding the ‘other’ leads (more often than not) to respect and a greater sense of community.

“Never give up”

Never give up conclude Rwanda means the Universe: a native’s memoir of blood and bloodlines, a book by Louise Mushikiwabo combining the history of Rwanda through the exploration of family links.

I came upon the book whilst researching for the commissioned article on Ruanda-Urundi during World War 1. Knowing I would be visiting Rwanda, I decided to leave reading the whole book until I was there. I’m not sure if it’s better to read a book about a place when you are there or before you arrive, but on this occasion I’m pleased I took it with me. As I met with friends and travelled around Kigali and down to Butare/Huye (where the first school and university in Rwanda was built), so the names and places mentioned in the book became real. But what I hadn’t realised until I dared to show my Rwandan friend the book, that the author, Louise, is today Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Her story reflects that of many who experienced the genocide – the differences will are in the detail of events and the horrors – and survived. They haven’t given up! Despite all that fellow country men and women did to each other, it is evident that there is a significant section of the population which hasn’t given up on trying to make their country a better place for all. I’m not naive enough to think that it has been and will be smooth sailing, but there is definitely something about Rwanda which I haven’t experienced in any other African country – part of me found it too ordered, clean and new (most of Kigali is only ten years old), whilst another part of me found the interaction with and between people who had been educated in different parts of the world refreshingly open, honest and tolerant of ‘otherness’. I felt a true equal.

The resilience of Africans was brought home when we met with a young Burundi woman wo was taking refuge with her grandmother in Kigali. Talking to her, you would have no idea of all the horrors that country is currently experiencing. Concerns and worry are kept private and life as it happens is taken for what it is and enjoyed when it can be.

I imagine that after World War 1, many Africans who had experienced the horrors of that conflict reacted in much the same way and got on with life – reconciling with those who had been ‘on the other side’  in so many ways (if only a few other African countries would take a leaf out of these reconciling books!). The difference however, is that while WW1 has disappeared from local memory, I don’t think the genocide will. My reason? There are too many memorials to those affected by the genocide whilst only a few photos, part of a building (the Kigali prison) and a few descendants remain to remind those who search of the presence and impact of WW1. Records (memorials and monuments)  of the past play an important role in reminding us of where we have come from; the good and bad. They reflect who we are today and can serve to remind us of attitudes and times we don’t want to return to.

LMushikiwabo

 #WW1 #Africa #Rwanda #Burundi #memory

Is this the reason Boers and Australians (white) love their country so much?

I return to Jan Smuts commenting on a piece written by Olive Schreiner in answer to the above question. Well, rather, it was reading the following which gave rise to the question. The reference for the quotes below is Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers vol 1, pp117-9.

She points out very truly that while the English Colonist, even he who settled in this country as far back as 1820, still continues to think fondly of, and feel sympathetically of his parents, and the great race to which he belongs, the Boer has become of the soil, soily; he has cut himself completely adrift from Europe and his progenitors, and their traditions and ideals over there; he has come to look upon South Africa, not merely as the land of his birth, but also as the source of all that is most dear and hallowed in his memory, as the object of his tenderest sympathies and aspirations. Why is the Boer in this respect so different, not only from his English fellow colonist, but also all the previous recorded types of colonist? The writer [Schreiner] points to the following facts as furning some explanation of this obscure and difficult subject. In the first place, the original population of the Colony consisted almost solely of males of very mixed nationalities; and the wives which the Company sent out for them were orphans from the philanthropic institutions of the mother country. They had no hallowed and enduring memories to cherish of the land of their birth, no parents’ homes to think of, with their thousand little trifling details which yet influence the hearts and thoughts of generations; this country was the first glimpse of ‘Good Hope’ which they ever had. No wonder, therefore, that they and their offspring cherished no sentimental regard for the mother country…’

Schreiner explains that the French refugees ‘did not bring any pleasant memories from their mother country’ as they were

‘separated from the bulk of the French population by great differences of religious belief and social aims, persecuted by their Government, and goaded by a nameless tyranny to rebellion and exile, they taught their children to love the land of refuge which providence had marked out for them, and themselves tried to forget the harsh stepmother of France.’

To this, Smuts counteracts using the letters by Bernardin de St Pierre who visited the Cape in 1771, in which he noted that ‘the one thing which struck him’ about the Dutch and the French colonists ‘was their strong sentimental attachment to the mother countries. He says the French always cried when the name of France was mentioned.’

Finally, a common language – Afrikaans – was a binding factor for the Boers.

One’s experiences clearly influences the way one sees and reacts to places. I couldn’t help but think of the views of the children/young people in Purple Hibiscus which I finished not long after reading Smuts’s commentary on Schreiner. The different responses to the worlds the children found themselves in can only be reminsicent of what the Boers and, I assume Australians as well as others, must have and continue to experience. The refugees of yesteryear are no different to those of today.