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Treasuring our heritage will bring us together

Viewing the grave of the Xhosa chief Ngqika a few years ago affected me deeply, but not in the way I expected. Nestling in the foothills of the Amatolas on the site of Ngqika’s “Great Place”, it was once regarded as semi–sacred by the Xhosa, a shrine that became the focus of their national yearnings. Today, it looks frankly abandoned, a non–descript flat stone bed crudely fenced off from the surrounding huts, and so undistinguished as to resemble no more than the final resting place of any local farmer. It is a depressing sight for an historian.

It was further sobering to see the conditions in which the surrounding population lived. The Xhosa finally won the Frontier Wars, at least politically, but amidst all the hopeless poverty it felt like a pyrrhic victory at best.

Also inexorably disappearing are the tangible remains of the Eastern Cape’s once all–pervasive imperial heritage. Crumbling, unvisited monuments, their bronze plaques often long torn off for their scrap metal value, forgotten and derelict military cemeteries now almost completely reclaimed by the bush, and the half–submerged remnants of forts and other outposts are increasingly all that is remain of the historical frontier region. One also finds the ruins of former white farmsteads, recognizable because of the tall trees their long–dead owners planted nearby as a gesture of faith in the future.

Just outside Fort Beaufort, some eighty kilometres to the north–west of Ngqika’s grave, lies the Waterkloof, an intricate system of cliffs, dense forests and precipitous gorges. It was here that the great Xhosa general Maqoma had his stronghold, withstanding numerous British attempts to dislodge him before the latter’s superior firepower finally prevailed. But there is no monument to Maqoma in the Waterkloof today, nor to the many brave warriors –- both Xhosa and coloured rebels — who fought and died beside him.

This is not exceptional. In general, there would seem to be a paucity of memorials in the Eastern Cape to those who fought so long and bitter a rearguard action against the predatory forces of colonialism. Hopefully, the situation is by now being remedied. A crucial part of any liberation process, after all, is reclaiming one’s history, always bearing in mind the truth of the adage that history is invariably written by the victors.

Since 1948, the Jewish people have been engaged in reclaiming their own history in their ancestral homeland, something that must have seemed an impossible dream during the endless years of their exile. A particularly stirring event in this ongoing quest took place in the Spring of 1960. Israeli President Yitzchak Ben–Zvi, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and various other senior members of government were gathered at Ben Zvi’s home to hear the reports of four teams of archaeologists on the latest discoveries made in the caves of the Judean Desert.

When it was his turn to report, the famous soldier–archaeologist Yigal Yadin displayed part of a document and read aloud the first line of writing upon it: “Shimon Bar Kosiba, President over Israel”. Turning to Ben Zvi, he said, “Your Excellency, I am honoured to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen dispatches written or dictated by the last President of ancient Israel, 1800 years ago”. Bar Kosiba, also known as Bar Kochba, had been the leader of the last Jewish rebellion again Rome in 132–4 C.E., a legendary hero who briefly restored Jewish independence before a final, catastrophic defeat put paid to Jewish nationalist aspirations for nearly two millennia.

Yadin’s momentous discovery, resonant with emotional significance for the people of the young State of Israel, came to my mind last December as I stood at the foot of Nomtjherhelo, the hill fortress of the Ndebele Chief Nyabela. Strewn with boulders, covered with thick vegetation and honeycombed with an intricate system of caves, this was the main stronghold of the Ndzundza clan. It was here that they entrenched and rallied themselves following Mzilikazi’s reign of terror and here, during the Mapoch War of 1882–3, that they held the predatory forces of the Zuid–Afrikaansche Republiek at bay for eight months before being forced by starvation to capitulate.

A statue of Nyabela was erected at the foot of Nomtjherhelo in 1970. Every 19 December, his people’s descendants gather before the hill to remember their ancestors’ sacrifices, simultaneously celebrating the ongoing vibrancy of the Ndebele culture that the white man’s military conquest disrupted but failed to destroy. One cannot help but be reminded of another mountain fortress — Masada — where Jews today, among them newly–inducted Israeli soldiers, regularly gather to remember the gallant, doomed resistance of their ancestors against the might of Rome.

There do now exist several memorials to the Zulu warriors who gave their lives in the epic struggle with the British Empire in 1879. The Isandlwana battlefield is strewn with monuments to the British dead, but the single memorial to the Zulus -– which is both unpretentious and deeply eloquent — is by far the most moving. What achievements of courage, stamina, discipline and sacrifice it recalls, that great and terrible day when a bare–footed African army swept down upon the cream of the mighty British army and obliterated them. The Spartans of antiquity had nothing on these guys. Indeed, of all South Africa’s black ethnic groups, it is the Zulus who have traditionally enjoyed the most respect from their European conquerors. What does it say about human nature that this was only achieved once they had succeeded in killing large numbers of them?

South Africa’s history belongs to all its people. Its material legacy is something that should be treasured by everyone, whether it is an Iron Age archaeological site, an 1820 Settler cottage, a military cemetery, a political prison or a mineworkers’ compound. Above all, South Africans must avoid thinking in terms of “white” and “black” history, and in finally according the story of black South Africans the due place it was denied during the years of white domination, and steer clear of falling into the trap of denigrating the latter’s equally valid narratives and traditions.

All our peoples have contributed to the rich, compelling, multi–faceted mosaic that makes up our country’s story. Today, no matter what race, religious, linguistic or ethnic group we belong to, we can view the historical experiences of all our fellow South African as our own -– taking pride in their accomplishments, empathising with their suffering, and drawing inspiration from the heroism they and their forebears have displayed.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.