Pris­on­ers of his­tory – and that’s all of us

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.

But Vegkop?

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.

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