For the young, fab­ric of his­tory must fall

Business Day - - OPINION - Steinberg teaches African stud­ies at Ox­ford Univer­sity and is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Wits In­sti­tute for So­cial and Eco­nomic Re­search.

Iam nearly 47 years old and a univer­sity teacher and am thus wit­ness in my daily work to the sen­si­bil­i­ties of peo­ple more than a generation younger than I am. Ev­ery so of­ten, from nowhere, our world views collide, and I am ex­posed to an un­set­tling chasm be­tween us.

Re­cently, for in­stance, I shared with a class a story from Deputy Chief Jus­tice Dik­gang Moseneke’s re­cently pub­lished mem­oir, My Own Lib­er­a­tor. Early in the book, Moseneke re­calls from his boy­hood the life and ca­reer of his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Makubande Dick­son Mak­haza. Papa, as Moseneke remembers him, was a chef in a ho­tel in Pre­to­ria and left his home in At­teridgeville long be­fore dawn each morn­ing to light the kitchen stove at his place of work.

But Sun­days, Papa’s day of rest, were quite dif­fer­ent. He would wake early, put on his white chef top and pre­pare a full lunch for his fam­ily. Then, his pots sim­mer­ing on the stove, he would change into a white shirt, a black coat and tie and the bright red waist­coat of the Amado­dana aseWe­sile. So at­tired, he would walk briskly through the streets to the At­teridgeville Methodist Church in time to ring the church bell, a task he per­formed ev­ery week with­out fail for four decades. The ser­vice over, Papa re­turned home im­me­di­ately to serve his fam­ily lunch.

“As the af­ter­noon drew on,” Moseneke writes, “… he would sit on the front ve­randa, his wife by his side, with a Sun­day news­pa­per open, as if he were read­ing it.” For Papa, Moseneke tells us ear­lier in the book, was il­lit­er­ate.

“I knew from my child­hood,” Moseneke writes, “that Papa quickly learned to find a photo in the news­pa­per to tell him which side was up.

“As tra­di­tion dic­tated, passers-by in the street greeted him — ‘Sawubona Baba Mak­haza’ — and he would lower the news­pa­per and greet back. From his placid face and oc­ca­sional con­ver­sa­tion with Mama, one could never miss how self-sat­is­fied he was.”

The class with which I shared this story con­sisted largely of An­glo­phone Africans — Zim­bab­weans, South Africans, Kenyans, Nige­ri­ans. Our re­sponses to it were so very dif­fer­ent.

For me, it was not an un­com­pli­cated story, to be sure. Moseneke would surely not have shared it had Papa been alive; it would have em­bar­rassed him. But it is, none­the­less, a pow­er­ful tale of African ad­vance­ment for it in­sists that even in the dark­est days of white mi­nor­ity rule, there ex­isted in the Mak­haza house­hold an in­domitable will to as­pire. In­deed, the story makes best sense when viewed over the course of gen­er­a­tions. Papa may have had to look at the pictures to know which side was up, but his son-in-law was to be­come a re­spected head­mas­ter and his grand­son, Dik­gang, was to as­cend to the sec­ond-most se­nior post in his coun­try’s ju­di­ciary. Viewed in ret­ro­spect, the im­age of the old man and his news­pa­per is a grand mon­u­ment to the power of the will.

That is not how many of the stu­dents with whom I shared the story saw it. They were sim­ply em­bar­rassed for Papa and a lit­tle scorn­ful of him. It was the men­tal­ity of such peo­ple, some re­marked, that made African so­ci­ety so easy for im­pe­ri­al­ists to rule. Af­ter all, if your sub­jects are pre­tend­ing to read in­stead of fight­ing for ed­u­ca­tion, the task of sub­ju­gat­ing them is not so hard. I replied that there was a link be­tween Papa’s spirit and the fact that his grand­son fought for free­dom. Be­tween them­selves and Papa, they wanted no con­nec­tion.

Right now in SA and, per­haps, in Africa more broadly, there ex­ists a gen­er­a­tional es­trange­ment deeper than we have ac­knowl­edged. It is most ob­vi­ously man­i­fest in the ac­tivists of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall and their scorn for al­most ev­ery­one over the age of 40. But it is ap­par­ent, too, more sub­tly, in the class­room dis­cus­sion I have de­scribed.

This is a time of dis­en­chant­ment, I think, a time when many young in­tel­lec­tu­als fer­vently be­lieve that their el­ders made a hash of things and be­queathed a mess. Many have cut all ties of imag­i­na­tion and of sym­pa­thy with those who pre­ceded them. They do not want to step into the shoes of an il­lit­er­ate man of the mid-20th cen­tury, for he comes from a past with which they want no truck.

A generation with lit­tle sym­pa­thy for those who came be­fore it is, in the pro­found­est sense, alone, locked in an all-con­sum­ing present. The young can at­tack the in­sti­tu­tions around them with unchecked fe­roc­ity be­cause these in­sti­tu­tions come with a past they have dis­owned.

If we want to know why our uni­ver­si­ties are so trou­bled, we need to look, I be­lieve, at the sev­ered con­nec­tions be­tween the young and their fore­bears.



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