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.
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!