What kind of epoch is the fu­ture go­ing to be­stow on our gen­er­a­tion? And who among us will epit­o­mise such an epoch? asks

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‘Men pass, epochs pass, but the fu­ture beck­ons!” said one Jan Hen­drik Hofmeyr. This is not the singer-cum­racist bigot of our time, Steve, but an in­tel­lec­tual, who his bi­og­ra­pher, Alan Paton, would say, among his con­tem­po­raries, had no peer. Of his in­tel­lec­tual depth, ge­nius and bril­liance, Hofmeyr, ac­cord­ing to Paton, was at his time sec­ond only to Jan Smuts, de­spite his being al­most 20 years younger than the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed philoso­pher-cum-states­man.

A lib­eral, a worka­holic and an over­achiever; he was un­til the fate­ful elec­tion of 1948, read­ily poised to be, as yet an­other bi­og­ra­pher, Tom McDon­ald, thought of him, heir to Smuts.

But this ar­ti­cle is not in­tended for a com­mem­o­ra­tion of Hofmeyr’s short life, but to re­flect on the pro­fun­dity of his state­ment and pon­der what seems to be its deep mean­ing for the his­tory un­fold­ing be­fore our eyes.

Hofmeyr’s state­ment is full of truth; for no right-think­ing per­son can dis­pute the fact that men and epochs come and pass.

But beyond this tru­ism we should also recog­nise the central role that man plays in shap­ing epochs; for man is not an in­no­cent and pas­sive ob­server of his­tory, but an en­gi­neer of epochs that shape the fu­ture of a so­ci­ety.

Even as man is es­sen­tially a prod­uct of his en­vi­rons, he is en­dowed with the unique abil­ity of the mind to imag­ine and ac­tively en­gi­neer a dif­fer­ent real­ity from what is at his dis­posal. En­dowed with the mind, man is also ca­pa­ble of iden­ti­fy­ing the epochs of his time, seiz­ing op­por­tu­nity and shap­ing the fu­ture.

What, ex­actly, do we mean by epochs? It is im­por­tant to clar­ify this ques­tion, else we risk mis­tak­ing a sin­gle-day event that takes place in the life of a nation for an epoch.

The Ox­ford ad­vanced dic­tio­nary de­fines epoch as “a pe­riod of time in his­tory, es­pe­cially one dur­ing which im­por­tant events or changes hap­pen”.

There­fore, a sin­gle-day event such as April 27 1994 or June 16 1976 may mark a cli­max in a nation’s tra­jec­tory, but such a day is not nec­es­sar­ily an epoch in it­self.

It is rather the cu­mu­la­tive ac­tiv­i­ties sus­tained over a pe­riod of time lead­ing to and car­ried out beyond that event­ful day that make an epoch. Thus, by epochs we mean a pe­riod of sus­tained change in the tra­jec­tory of a nation which may be sig­ni­fied by a spe­cific year.

Com­mon in these his­toric epochs we will find a few char­ac­ters that stand out, epit­o­mis­ing such epoch in the evo­lu­tion of a so­ci­ety. It is the sig­nif­i­cant role played by these char­ac­ters in shap­ing that epoch that at­tracts the saga­cious pen of his­to­ri­ans to record their names in their hal­lowed books.

Sim­i­larly, the evo­lu­tion of South Africa is a tale of his­toric epochs equally epit­o­mised by char­ac­ters whose deeds stood out to at­tract the at­ten­tion of his­to­ri­ans.

Even the “political dis­as­ters and eco­nomic wind­falls” that re­spected eco­nomic his­to­rian CE de Kiewiet ob­served form the ta­pes­try on whose canvas the tra­jec­tory of our coun­try is writ­ten and have pro­tag­o­nists that epit­o­mise them.

Thus, 1652 hav­ing marked the ar­rival of Euro­peans in South Africa, it is fit­ting to de­scribe as epochal. It was the first con­tact be­tween Euro­peans and the in­dige­nous peo­ple of South Africa. And, even as he was not alone when he docked on our shores, Jan van Riebeeck is the char­ac­ter that epit­o­mised that epoch.

The ar­rival of Bri­tish set­tlers in 1820 was also a his­toric epoch. It marked the es­ca­la­tion of colo­nial­ism in South Africa as the Bri­tish were de­ter­mined to ex­pand their em­pire. To un­der­stand who the pro­tag­o­nists were one goes no fur­ther than read­ing the his­tory of Gra­ham­stown and Som­er­set in Cape Town, re­spec­tively named af­ter Colonel Gra­ham and Lord Charles Som­er­set.

While the dis­cov­er­ies of di­a­monds in 1866 and gold in 1884 were the eco­nomic wind­falls that changed the for­tunes of our coun­try, they also cast a spell on the lives of black peo­ple as they were pau­perised through cheap labour. The ex­ploita­tive labour sys­tem that, to this day, con­demns black peo­ple to the lower rungs of the eco­nomic chain is a le­gacy we in­her­ited from the colo­nial­ism that He­len Zille had to be hauled over the coals to apol­o­gise for.

Ce­cil Rhodes, Al­fred Beit and Bar­ney Bar­nato are among the char­ac­ters that epit­o­mise that epoch in our his­tory, de­spite the fact that there were hundreds of spec­u­la­tors and dig­gers who also flocked into Kim­ber­ley and Jo­han­nes­burg fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of our min­eral re­sources.

There were many Bo­ers who worked tire­lessly to­wards the for­ma­tion of the Union of South Africa in 1910, but Louis Botha and Jan Smuts would be re­mem­bered as the peo­ple who shaped the for­ma­tion of that union.

DF Malan, John Foster and Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd were not the only ar­chi­tects of apartheid as in­sti­tu­tion­alised in 1948. There were many apartheid big­ots who are lucky that their deeds remain buried in the an­nals of his­tory.

Sim­i­larly, there are many un­sung heroes of the lib­er­a­tion

TALK TO US Do you think 2019 will mark the be­gin­ning of a new epoch for SA’s political life?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word EPOCHS and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50 move­ment who played a crit­i­cal role along­side the Man­de­las, Mbekis and Sisu­lus, who epit­o­mised our 1994 mo­ment.

His­tory is, there­fore, like a great theatre, on whose stage we are sum­moned to play our part and dis­ap­pear once our role is done. Like on a theatre stage, there are pro­tag­o­nists, cheer­lead­ers and some are au­di­ence mem­bers.

The afore­men­tioned peo­ple played their role and, as Hofmeyr re­minds us, in­deed man and epochs pass. What re­mains is the fu­ture that con­tin­ues to beckon.

We, there­fore, find our­selves hav­ing to an­swer the ques­tions: What kind of epoch is this fu­ture that is beck­on­ing go­ing to be­stow on our gen­er­a­tion? And who among us will be the char­ac­ters that will epit­o­mise such an epoch? These ques­tions are about whether, as a gen­er­a­tion, we can recog­nise the re­spon­si­bil­ity his­tory has be­stowed upon us in the evo­lu­tion of our so­ci­ety.

A care­ful ob­ser­va­tion of the un­fold­ing events in our na­tional politics sug­gests that we are in­deed on the cusp of his­tory and 2019 prom­ises to mark that epoch.

That 2019 is likely to be the year in which the ANC loses na­tional elec­tions would mark the end of lib­er­a­tion politics in South Africa and usher in a dif­fer­ent politics at two lev­els.

At the first level, hence­forth, any­one try­ing to black­mail black peo­ple on the ba­sis of struggle cre­den­tials would be ir­rel­e­vant. Par­ties would have to do more than in­voke the mem­ory of this or that hero from Maz­imbu to win the hearts and minds of vot­ers. It would be the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a per­son, his or her vi­sion for the coun­try, rather than danc­ing and singing, that would win votes for a party. In short, 2019 may usher in an epoch of a politics of ideas.

Se­condly, 2019 may also mark the end of geron­toc­racy – a lead­er­ship by old peo­ple. If 2019 ush­ers in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment be­tween the DA and the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers, as many pun­dits have pre­dicted, the el­e­va­tion of Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to the Union Build­ings will also sig­nify the elec­torate’s em­brace of youth­ful lead­er­ship and a re­jec­tion of old dead wood.

Thus, his­tory will be kind to Maimane and Malema, and record them as the char­ac­ters that epit­o­mised a new epoch in the evo­lu­tion of our so­ci­ety.

But even as we are op­ti­mistic about the pos­si­ble epoch that 2019 rep­re­sents, there is a daunt­ing ques­tion we can­not ig­nore: If the ANC loses, will it ac­cept the out­come of an elec­tion and hand over power peace­fully, or will it re­sist and throw the coun­try into anar­chy?

If anar­chy reigns, 2019 will mark a dif­fer­ent epoch and may throw our coun­try on to a tra­jec­tory of the sort of ne­go­ti­ated political agree­ments that have char­ac­terised post­colo­nial so­ci­eties in Africa. This epoch and its char­ac­ters, too, shall pass, but the fu­ture will con­tinue to beckon. Mal­ada is a mem­ber of

the Midrand Group


IN WITH THE NEW The el­e­va­tion of Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to the Union Build­ings will sig­nify the elec­torate’s em­brace of youth­ful lead­er­ship and a re­jec­tion of old dead wood

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