Prisoners of history – and that’s all of us
SOMEONE who quits a solid, stolid, steady, paying job to go chasing the dictates of dream or conscience is automatically simpatico, I find. Instinct instantly leaps to “great, good luck!”
Well, meet Michael Charton, who was a chartered accountant until he was consumed by the idea that South Africa’s rough history is quite a plus, somewhat along the lines of the hottest furnace making the strongest steel.
So he quit accountancy and spent painful time mapping out a way of telling the South African tale so that everyone ends up feeling better about (a) themselves and (b) everyone else.
The result is a show called My Father’s Coat, a one-man address in much the style that the late and very lamented David Rattray made famous through his Isandlwana and other Zulu War tales.
I’d heard three or four times in the last few months of My Father’s Coat, which is striking, especially as it has so far, I gather, been one-night stands – today the Groote Schuur High School, Monday week a gallery in Bryanston, that kind of thing.
On Wednesday Michael did the main auditorium at the Military Museum in Saxonwold.
That must seat 300 and it was packed. Is a new South African phenomenon arising here? I’d say, after due reflection: “Yes.”
Michael’s thing is seeing the world, and more specifically the nation, through different eyes. On the face of it that sounds pretty standard, but I’ve spent far longer than Michael on this planet and on this soil and he brought up an extraordinary number of ways of seeing things that I had never seen before.
Vegkop, for instance… Isn’t this funny? If I’d written “Blood River, for instance…”, most people would know broadly what that refers to, a violent Natal battle/massacre in the 1830s.
I confess it has been a blank in my mind; a known name with no context whatever. I now understand it as the Free State’s version of Blood River; saddle-shaped hill near Heilbron just south of the Vaal; gunpowder in the laager, assegais on the other side, a staggeringly gory result.
That story, we heard from the perspective of Mzilikazi.
Then comes one that puts us in the shoes of Paul Kruger, sitting in humble, rustic one-storey Pretoria and watching the frenetic, breakneck, gold-fuelled multi-storey foreign city arising on the south horizon.
Now, it’s not news that, for Kruger, the Transvaal gold strike was far from welcome, but I congratulate Michael on bringing that home to me in a way it has not been brought before.
I suspect his tale would leave anyone, even a descendant of Mzilikazi, feeling sympathy for a bewildered devout president, reeking of tobacco, facing his impossible choice.
To give the money-grubbing loose-living riff-raff what will soon be the majority vote in his country, or to refuse and give the colonial power the excuse to swamp his country with its redcoat army, paint it pink on the map and grab its gold?
Finally Kruger flees the country from which he in childhood had contributed to expelling Mzilikazi. Tragedy breeds tragedy. We follow the pattern through the eyes of Rhodes, Smuts and Mandela to the point that …
… Well, it can’t be said that we are on everybody’s side. We retain our understandings of right and wrong, much influenced by our own birth and background, but we are not seeing villains.
Rather, we are seeing prisoners of history.
The barbarities that previous ages went through brought us to the time that we can/should know better; the time we can love each other the better for understanding how screwed up the past was; everybody’s past.