Business Day

For the young, fabric of history must fall

- 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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