Songezo Mabece

The untold history lesson…

I have spent a good two hours writing this exam paper and am relieved to be finally constructing a good response, with just over an hour to go before “pens down”. No later than my relief came, the intercom rings, and with that my answer vanishes.

“The school is requested to please stop writing, stand at attention and observe a moment of silence in honour of Armistice Day. The Last Post and Reveille will sound. Teachers are reminded to please give pupils an extra 15 minutes of writing time. Thank you.”

The resultant silence was broken by the trumpet as the sound filtered into my receptive ears. Those who know their history will know that this is generally what was being observed throughout the Commonwealth: A truly British tradition on the 11th of the 11th, at 11am. To this day, red poppies are worn in honour of Remembrance Day. For what it is worth, the British are to be lauded for the manner in which their fallen are immortalised.

But what does that mean for Songezo Mabece? What relevance does Remembrance Day have for him as a young man, whose root and stem is deeply embedded in Afrikan soil?

This war was fought at a time when my forefathers were fourth-class citizens in their ancestral home. Their class followed, in ascending order of privilege, the coloured, Indian and white person. At this time (and long before) my forefathers were fighting wars of their own, against the settler citizen, in the main. In what is now the Eastern Cape (formerly Cape Colony), there is an area referred to as frontier country — the span where some of these wars were fought. Fort Beaufort, Fort Cox, Fort Malan, Fort Hare, among others, are station names that are synonymous with the region. Chiefs and warriors in the form of Ndlambe, Maqoma, Nxele (Makana), et al, were their adversaries. From these military contests, towns like Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Alice, King William’s Town and others, were founded following the conquest of the rifle.

Then there was the colossal Zulu leader, King Shaka. He is unarguably one of the greatest Afrikan leaders. His territory played host to one of the most crushing defeats suffered by the British, at the hands of the Zulu nation — the battle of Isandlwana. I could even talk about the tribal wars and battles that plagued (within and without) the indigenous Afrikan language groups. But I cannot.

1824 European artist's impression of Shaka.

1824 European artist’s impression of Shaka.

For the most part, the colonial history that I know is born of the curriculum of the former East London Model C school, at which I was educated. My history lessons throughout canvassed names like Ferdinand Magellan: the Portuguese who is credited as the first man to sail around the world; Christopher Columbus — the man who discovered America; and of course the Dutchman, Jan van Riebeeck — the man who “discovered” South Afrika in 1652.

I was told about the French and American Revolutions. From Napoleon Bonaparte to Otto von Bismarck, I was told of world wars. From Adolf Hitler to Benito Mussolini, I was told of the Allied Powers of Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.

They loved to tell me about Idi Amin and vilified Robert Mugabe.

They scantily brushed over Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta and Kenneth Kaunda. They could not avoid telling me about Rolihlahla Mandela, Mangaliso Sobukwe and Mahatma Gandhi.

They drummed William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and William Wordsworth.

AC Jordan, SEK Mqhayi, DM Jongilanga, JT Jabavu and WB Rubusana were swept under the carpet. I have just learned of Nat Nakasa. I had to read Animal Farm but not Ityala Lamawele.

Sadly, I was not taught of the Punic Wars between what is now Tunisia (then Carthage) and the Roman Empire, when senator Cato declared, “Carthago dalenda esq” — Carthage must be destroyed. I was not told about the battle of Isandlwana. The Bulhoek Massacre is not known to me. I was not told of the slave trade.

I was not told about the battle for the title of oldest tertiary institute that is contested between the Moroccan and Egyptian universities of Karaouine and Al-Azhar. I was not told who founded mathematics. The manuscripts of Timbuktu are as if they never were.

They never told me how Bantu Biko died. I was not allowed to lament the tragic story of Nongqawuse. They kept silent about Sarah Baartman.

They did not celebrate Tiyo Soga. Little has been said of Charlotte Maxeke.

The mother who carried the struggle, Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, is a villain and “did not deserve him”. How dare they?

I was not taught about Thomas Sankara and Haile Selassie.

They did not tell me that Sudan was the first Afrikan state to be independent, but am told of it as a failed Afrikan state.

He advocated for apartheid. Today he defends it. Yet, somehow, he received the Nobel Peace Prize standing next to his prisoner.

I was not allowed to grieve the Land Act, the Separate Amenities Act, the Group Areas Act. Rather, I must celebrate the Constitution. And how I do!

Why would they tell me these things though? They sat at a dinner table with carving knives and produced the Treaty of Berlin. They brought with them “civilisation” and took gold, platinum and diamonds. They also forced our strongest, youngest most fertile and fittest across the Atlantic. For good measure, they occupied the coastal land and lapped up the sun — vastly different to the snow.

Considering I have so little knowledge of what I should know, I cannot claim to be learned, even though I have a senior degree at law.

There cannot be another generation of this directionless drift.

Never, never and never again!

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    • Bernard Villet

      Absolutly, but who is going to tell this history if it is not happening in the south african classroom.

    • Philani

      Yes, they came to make sure we feel inferior and must not know about leadership.

    • Sebabatso Manoeli

      I cannot agree more with this article. History is so essential, especially for a people whose indigenous cosmologies are centred on connectedness to ancestors. Africa is the last place that should be without histories. That is what makes our present situation so tragic.

    • Lucas


    • Liso

      I agree with the article. Unfortunately most people look at it with rose tinted glasses. Those that ere oppressed look at it is further opression. WHile those that were oppressing don’t see the need for this other history to be taught. Yet had such other histry been taught the likehood of these “failed” state would be diminished. Yet, a proud people would not be seeking jobs but would be creating them themselves. So I implore that we get told our africa history with all it’s swagger… the so called World Wars were never that but wars between few nations. I also see & understand when the author will say Shaka gave the British their heaviest defeat. Me knows that they suffered more in the Eastern Cape…hence they had to run away & reinforcements were called aften.

    • African Heros

      So, shouldn’t they have vilified Audi Amin and Mugabe?

    • Richard

      There were many things about which we were not told. We were not told about the Barbary Pirates, who were Africans, and enslaved about one-and-a-half million Europeans by raiding the coasts of England and European countries; we were not taught about the African slave trade, nor the Arab one. We were not taught much about the dispossession of the San Bushmen by black Africans, and white Europeans. What we were taught about was really very pragmatic, the history of the most significant events (practically-speaking) of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. I agree that we were not taught enough about African history, but that does not mean we were taught a lot about European history or world history for the sake of it. It was narrow history. Did we learn about, say, Ming China? The Siege of Osaka? Did we learn anything about the Wars of the Roses, or the Hundred Years War? Did we learn about the Peloponnesian War? Or Alexander Nevsky? Did we learn about modern African slavery? The history we learned was not sufficient to give us a sense of perspective, it was narrow, I agree. However, history should not be polemic. To say that it should present a political perspective to shore up a particular worldview is disingenuous. That is what the previous National Party government did, with endless repetitions of the Great Trek, and grievances of the Boer War. But, I feel as disappointed with what I didn’t learn as you did. The books are there, though. Help yourself.

    • Malebogo Molutsi

      What more can be said about our education system?

      I don’t recall hearing of names like steve Biko or Robert Sobukwe nor seeing their faces in one of our history books. I vividly remember names such as Jan van Riebeck, John Rhodes, Paul Kruger etc, instead. This article highlights the grim reality of our education system and it has not only left me in mental conflict, but it has surely left me scratching my head as I pondered of such big names and their relevance. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I feel that there is a wealth of untold stories in south africa. We need to teach our children about our history and its importance in Afrika and the world. By doing this, we will not only teach the next generations of our past, but we well ensure that our visionaries and heroes’ names, are applauded and will be forever cherished for having shepherded our country to democracy.

    • Xhosa Culture

      Spot on Article… The country’s leadership MUST read this, especially those in the Education sector…

    • Brianb

      Text book historians often have political agendas or adhere to directives from governments of the day.
      A great aspect of the “technological communication revolution” (internet) is that the truth eventually emerges from all the legend.

    • Tshenolo

      Amen! I couldn’t agree with you more. This has to stop and it has to stop TODAY. Not tomorrow because “tomorrow is always a day away” (Annie, 1982). I am very much available to be a part of this movement. This conversation MUST continue and ultimately lead to solutions that can be implemented!!!!

    • Zama

      This article is on the right track, good one Mhlekazi!. It’s articles like this that we need in order to stimulate our thinking and ask more questions about ourselves as Africans to get to the truth. Initiating a dialogue in this subject and sustaining it will go a long way.

    • Kopi

      You have no idea how excited I get when I learn of another African brother who has a frighteningly same outlook as I do. I love this piece. Took my thoughts and words right out of my mouth.

      I hope we cross paths one day. This is the kind of literature I need taught in the schools I want to open. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • sireal

      Songezo, your knowledge of history and British tradition is woeful. The 11/11/11 ceremony is to remember all dead on all sides in all wars. It is to bring home to us all the awful consequence of war and remind us to seek peace rather than death and destruction.
      That is also what it means for Songezo Mabece – a time also to remember Shaka’s dead, twenty times the number of Brits killed at Isandlwana. Also to remember those that gave their lives to end apartheid, not just the white ones like Ruth First.
      Open your field of vision, be proud of your culture and heritage, but respect that of others as well. And don’t be blinded by your nationalism – read Orwell’s essay on nationalism, it is enlightening. And, finally, Shaka was no doubt a great man, but he was also unbelievably cruel and capricious, not only to his enemies, but even more so to his own people. Read about him.

    • Richard

      To remind you of George Orwell’s quote in “1984” (sorry, another white person): “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

    • zimsamurai

      Thank you for the thought provoking article! For me it has served as a reminder to those who have had an opportunity to learn that they must share what they learn. Changing school syllabuses can come at a later point but the grassroots movement is powerful and effective. Please talk about these things with your friends and family. I am always tying to convince my sisters that Africans had their own gods before we got a white one. Our gods, like the white one to the Europeans, suited our purposes at the time.
      By the way, anyone noticed how there is a dearth of non-Europeans in philosophy classes? Africans are some of the most philosophical people I know.

    • Songezo

      Sireal, I invite you to read my article again, only this time with the eyes to read what I wrote and not the eyes to read in what I did not write.

      Remembrance Day was first observed in Britain (fact). The Commonwealth of nations also honour the day (fact). It follows that what you say “The 11/11/11 ceremony is to remember all dead on all sides in all wars” is indeed implicit in the literature that “[t]hose who know their history will know that this is generally what was being observed throughout the Commonwealth: A truly British tradition on the 11th of the 11th, at 11am. To this day, red poppies are worn in honour of Remembrance Day. For what it is worth, the British are to be lauded for the manner in which their fallen are immortalised,” as written by me in the article. I have neither sought to alter the history nor the significance of the day. That said, I must caution that not all wars are honoured in the Remembrance Day commemorations. So your understanding is, to that extent, at least, limited.

      Simply, I have questioned why Songezo Mabece (me) has to celebrate it more (if at all) than what, by right, he should be celebrating – his Afrikan heritage and past (both good and bad).

      To this end, you are more than welcome to articulate your views on this very platform, as I did, and drive your own agenda. I am most certainly resolute in my stance.

      All the same, thank you for reading my article and proffering your views. I look forward to yours.


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    • Amanda

      Its a sad reality, but our history as Africans was nor recorded on paper, and that is where “whites” have the upper hand. There’s only soo much information we can get from our parents/grand parents. Parents have as much of a responsibility to educate their kids about their African history. But you are right, this generation has a responsibility to ensure that the coming generations dont face the same doom.

    • Lwazi Manzi

      Read ‘Ropes of Sand’ by John Laband. That picture in your article is in it. Although its written by a white man (John Laband- canadian history professor), he made a real effort to articulate Zulu history from a Zulu perspective and demonstrated that the Zulu’s already had an ancient civilization that was little understood. On the flip side he also talks about the role of Africans in the introduction and expansion of colonialism. He also shows how before colonialism there was a time when whites in fact visited and stayed in Zululand, had wives, built houses and were even members of courts. It’s well written and meticulously researched with a historians pure agenda

    • AshanteDAfrikologist

      Excellent article, that’s why I started the INSTITUTE OF AFRIKOLOGY to renovate the past of HIS Stories,

      AFRIKOLOGY without apology

      Yaa Ashantewaa

    • Ndumiso

      Amazing how I’m reading this immediately after I’ve watched “Hidden Colors.” I suggest that everyone who strongly agrees with this article go and get your hands on this documentary and be enlightened. It speaks of African History internationally. And it is a pity we were not taught this in school. This onslaught on our psychology needs to stop at some point. This is madness.

    • Una


      I must commend you for admitting that you don’t know your history. Fortunately, unlike in natural sciences you can educate yourself without any assistance from a facilitator, the only problem will be time. It is good to feed our brain constantly enough to keep abreast of developments in our environment be it at a domestic or international level. Also to know where we come from so that we may have an idea of where we are heading. Once you start knowing certain things you will begin to ask yourself why particular details are omitted or misrepresented in certain narratives. That is when you will realise the complicated nature of the beast (use your imagination) at domestic and international level. There are just a few mistakes that I would like to correct in your post.

      The battle of Isandlwana was fought by Zulu troops that were lead by King Cetywayo Shaka was already dead. Shaka was born in 1779, the same year when the first frontier war was fought between the Dutch and amaXhosa. Xhosas never fought for long with the Dutch. They ran away and came back and sold arms to amaXhosa to fight their wars with the British. Shaka died in 1829 at the age of fifty. By that time he had already established the Zulu nation in 1816, some scholars claim it was in 1820. I would urge you to read mostly books that are written by “independent writers” who have done a lot of archival research. All of the best in your quest for knowledge

    • Songezo


      I often wonder why people sound foolish, yet one can tell (however one arrives at that conclusion) they are not fools. Your post is one such occasion where this wonder visited me. You are masquerading as a scholar of reasoning and thought, where, in fact, the complete opposite appears more truthful.

      Where in my post did I say King Shaka (in person) led the Battle of Isandlwana? I never said so. What I said was “[h]is territory played host to one of the most crushing defeats suffered by the British, at the hands of the Zulu nation…”

      From the records, we know that the battle was fought in 1879, long after the Zulu nation (the “his territory”) had been established.

      You even agree on that as you state that “…he had already established the Zulu nation in 1816…”

      Now, would-be “scholar” Una, tell me which history it is that I must learn (“correctly”)?

      In Sub-A, I was taught to listen more than speak. Assuming there is even an answer to your hypocritical post, I would urge that you learn the basics of reading and understanding BEFORE proffering a response, especially before wrapping a response with a veil of sarcasm that does nothing but expose your frailties as a reader.

      From your unprogressive post, you could certainly do with that lesson, although I suspect you are way beyond Sub-A-going age. For this, you MUST certainly make time. Yesterday!

    • ianshaw

      Actually Senator Cato said::”Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”
      I would also recommend that you re-read Animal Farm and some of Shakespeare’s plays which are very much a part of our present existence.In fact, this is why they are immortal works not necessarily confined to European culture.

    • ianshaw

      Without studying the works of ancient Greek philosophers, one cannot be a philosopher, for philosophy has certain definite axioms, tenets and rules.
      It si not just thinking randomly.

    • ianshaw

      Europeans “vilify” Hitler and Stalin even though they were white.

    • Paul Bluewater

      ….that’s right, what did the Romans ever do for us hey? :-)
      Nice read again.

    • Paul Bluewater

      Patience, comes with age :-)

      One catches more flies with honey than with vinegar.

      Good read too!