A recent exchange in The Witness raised the role of liberals in the liberation struggle. It has become fashionable to demean their contribution, characterising liberals as guilt-ridden fellow travellers of the apartheid regime. Indeed, a widely held view denies a meaningful place in the struggle to anyone who was not in exile or the South African Communist Party, a notion that would be laughable if it were not also so sinister. Perhaps the brightest liberal star in the anti-apartheid movement was the Black Sash, which fought on behalf of the common people equally fiercely against the unjust laws of an illegitimate all-white Parliament and the corrupt and callous practices of some black pensions clerks. Another was Lawyers for Human Rights. These organisations kept alive, under the most testing conditions, a core of moral values linked to hard-headed activism that benefited not only many individuals, but also guaranteed the durability of South African civil society. Their contribution to the transition to democracy was second to none, their commitment heroic.

At first sight the denigration of history − what Witness opinion piece writer Nina Hassim has correctly identified as the reduction of historical truth (there is such a thing, although it may be subject to variable interpretation) to crude propaganda − seems inexplicable in a nation that should be celebrating the triumph, in the face of enormous obstacles, of democracy over colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. The fight against the last was one of the great moral causes of the twentieth century and South Africans of many types and walks of life contributed to it.

We can trace the demise of history back to the transitional period of the early 1990s at which the two main nationalist parties came to an agreement that marginalised all other political participants and culminated in that strange, negotiated election of 1994. One can argue convincingly that this was the way it had to be, that this was the only path to a peaceful transition. But the first casualty was always going to be a respect for history.

Apart from a few members of the lunatic right-wing fringe it is hard today to find a white South African who admits to supporting apartheid. In 1994, drawing a line under, and forgetting, the past became a popular and in some eyes a patriotic activity. This was highly convenient for those for whom the idea of apartheid as a momentary aberration or a good idea gone wrong held considerable appeal. The devastation wreaked on southern Africa as a whole could be forgotten and possibly forgiven and we could all go back to watching the Springboks versus the All Blacks after an unfortunate interlude in the long march of history.

But amnesia was convenient also for the ANC. The shambles, thuggery, unnecessary deaths and betrayals that went on around the armed struggle could be consigned to oblivion. The issue of who was and was not a traitor to the cause and an informer could be sidelined; the truth that liberation struggles are messy affairs with as many crooks as heroes could be obscured; and the fact that brutal methods learned from East European security services were applied in camps like Quatro could be hidden. The vigour with which the ANC tried to suppress part of the TRC’s final report showed how uncomfortable it was with any history not written by itself; and how fixated it is upon a simplistic heroes versus villains version of the past. South Africa has a complex history that arouses feelings of bitterness and pain which are all too easily comprehensible. But above all it deserves to be respected, not forgotten, twisted, manipulated or cheapened to suit either old oppressors or the new ruling elite.

It is a natural inclination of successful liberation movements to favour the tabula rasa, the blank sheet upon which to inscribe their own versions of history. This has its sinister aspects, but these need not be terminal as long as there is enough effective contestation to point out the manipulation, omissions and half-truths. But the handmaiden of the official version of history is ultimately authoritarian rule and human rights abuse. Hostility to a pluralistic approach to history raises the terrible possibility that new rulers may ultimately want to emulate the oppressors they have replaced in order to achieve their own objectives. Statements made by certain high-ranking ANC members about the situation in Zimbabwe suggest that this might indeed be the case.

Much heat was generated by Mbongeni Ngema’s slanderous attack on members of the Indian community in his scurrilous song ‘Amandiya’. Putting aside its crude racism and perverted view of art which deserved the verdict of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and, if there is justice in this world, prosecution as hate speech, Ngema showed gross disrespect for Natal’s complicated history. His partial and distorted viewpoint jeopardised a fragile peace not to mention the contempt he showed for the victims of Durban’s 1949 inter-communal riots. The chanters of mindless slogans inciting violence against whites at Peter Mokaba’s funeral casually dismissed the efforts of thousands of South Africans, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer for example, who worked long and hard for peace and reconciliation.

These are just two topical examples of the fact that to ignore history is irresponsible and negligent. But to misuse it is potentially murderous.

This article was first published in The Witness on 9 July 2002 and entitled ‘History matters’.