Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The true meaning of African heritage: rebuilding the walls of our broken history

Aerial view of some Mpumalanga stone circles, South Africa.
DO we miss the point when Heritage Day, celebrated on 24 September, becomes a national orgy of braaing? The barbecue might well have been one of early humankind’s finest culinary moments, but it does reduce our culture to a disappointingly low historical denominator.

Indeed, we Africans were probably the first humans to roast meat, so the question is whether we just want to remember ourselves this way. For the truth is that Africa has a rich and largely unrealised history.

I first truly understood this on a visit to the Cairo museum many years ago. As a repository of North African civilisation, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is an overwhelming adventure. With over 100,000 pieces, its dusty halls are a fascinating time-machine of stone, mummies, wood and papyrus.

On that day there was a particular fresco that caught my eye. In it was a black Nubian aristocrat being attended to by a bevy of fair-skinned slaves. As a South African, I was transfixed: there it was – a Middle Kingdom mural, over 3, 000 years old, debunking the racial stereotype of apartheid.

That image – and the idea that Africa has influenced history as opposed to being influenced by history – has obsessed me ever since. Civilisation has never confined itself to Asia, the Middle East or Europe.

The most striking example of this is the notion that the Greeks were the sole flag-bearers of modern civilisation. Some historians devalue the Islamic period which led to the Latin renaissance, and most certainly they ignore the possibility that early geometry and mathematics could enjoy an African heart.

This is because it was the Egyptians, who when building the pyramids, had to understand the concept of the right angle some 2,000 years before Eudemus of Rhodes, or Euclid. According to the Senegalese historian, Chika Anta Deop, Pythagorean theory emanated from Egypt, not Greece.

But that is not all, the world’s oldest-known mathematical artefact, the Lebombo Bone, was discovered 40 years ago in Swaziland. Dating back some 40, 000 years, the bone is the carved fibula of a baboon, and according to experts, is most likely a lunar counter to monitor menstrual phases. 

The Ishango bone.
The discovery is far from anecdotal, as a Belgian geologist discovered a similar artefact, the Ishango bone, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ishango bone is about 20,000 years old. The notion that African women could have been humankind’s first mathematicians is certainly a poser for history.

Nor is it unrealistic that some of the world’s most ancient civilisations could hail from our very own shores. The discovery of a stone metropolis in Mpumalanga a few hundred kilometres west of Maputo, has raised historical eyebrows and is demanding that our orthodox narrative be seriously re-examined.

Said to be many thousands of years old, the circular dolerite stone structures – seen clearly on Google maps – cover a massive area. Predictably, early European explorers dismissed these stone circles as “cattle kraals”. The unearthing of an ankh symbol, a Horus bird and the alignment of a rock calendar called Inzalo Ye Langa (Birthplace of the Sun), raise fascinating questions about these ruins.  

It also begs the question, whether as a species, we were already advanced in terms of consciousness and technologybefore we migrated out of Africa across the continental land bridges into Europe and Asia?

There is much cryptic narrative in the work of Credo Mutwa, whose book Indaba My Children, is a compendium of Nguni legend. Mutwa’s narrative mentions battles with large apes (anthropologists do say Homo sapiens did once live side-by-side with Neanderthals) and white men (Phoenicians) who sailed up the Zambesi River.

Unfortunately, the Phoenicians – who came looking for gold, slaves and ivory – were an unwelcome, predatory force. Nonetheless, it is widely held that the Phoenicians used a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, and rounded the Cape in about 600 BCE. An account by the Greek historian, Herodotus, confirms this.

Local author Jose Burman, in Strange Shipwrecks of the Southern Seas, writes about two wrecks being discovered on the Cape Flats in the 19th century. Reports say their timber burnt well in Cape Town’s fireplaces, and gave off the scent of cedar – the wood from which Phoenician galleys are constructed.

Whilst some academics are unconvinced, an account by George Thompson in his Travels and Adventures in South Africa (1827), gives a credible first-hand account of an ancient, ribbed ship at the foot of the Tygerberg. The next fleet to round the Cape was, according to author Gavin Menzies, skippered by the Chinese Admiral, Zheng He, in 1421.

In the meantime, African empires across the Sahara from Senegal to Sudan rose to great heights. The Malian Madinkas and the Songhai controlled territories far greater than that of Europe, the madrasahs of Timbuktu enjoying international acclaim.

And when the emir, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj in 1324 he carried so much gold that he changed the economy of the towns he passed through. Then there is the 14th century Malian ruler, Mansa Abu Bakr II, who sailed across the Atlantic with 200 ships, but never returned. Archaeological evidence points to the African mariners landing near Mexico, and reaching the Americas 180 years before Columbus.

Indeed, Africa has given the world a lot we take for granted today: coffee, capsicum and so much more. Then there are the Dogon people of Mali, who before telescopes, knew that the Milky Way was spiral and that Saturn had rings. Africa had a huge edge in metallurgy too, Tanzanian, Ugandan and Rwandan furnaces being able to reach 1,800 degrees Celsius, and burn hotter than Roman ones.

Closer to home, we have the neglected narratives of the Khoi and the San, the original pastoralists and the original hunter-gatherers, whom I feel have been as ignored by the present regime as the past one. The Khoi (or Khoekhoe) used to graze their herds on the banks of the Liesbeeck River. But where are the public parks and where are the memorials?
Liesbeeck River

The Khoi-Gari-Qua used to live on the west coast. When they were creolised through mixing with other races, they became the Garigriqua, and under the leadership of Adam Kok, settled along the Orange River.

The creolised – or coloured – identity admixed with slave, European, Asian and African bloods, and as equally dispossessed as any black Nguni group, bears an unrecognised historical anguish; an anguish made even worse by current public policy. This is primarily because we don’t understand yesterday adequately enough to deal with today.

And that, perhaps, should be the challenge of the heritage month of September, and more particularly, Heritage Day. We need to rebuild the broken walls of our history, pull out the weeds of ignorance and cut down the thorn trees of Eurocentric cynicism sprouting in the ruins of our palaces. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

South African school hair protests are good for our democracy

What is wrong with traditional?
What has happened is a healthy harbinger of social change, and is yet another signal from our youth that the racist detritus of the past must go.

THE so-called “Afro-saga” surrounding the issue of multi-cultural hairstyles at schools, which burst dramatically into the public arena via recent events at Pretoria Girls High and Sans Souci, is something that has been brewing for years.

No-one should have been surprised when after decades of identity harassment, a group of Pretoria High learners would decide that enough was enough, and would mount a silent protest action by dressing in black and wearing doeks at the school fair.

That there was a realisation of what their rights were as citizens – albeit minors in many cases – speaks to the inherent problem in some schools, and the courage of these young people to actually speak out about them.   

The fact that the event went viral on social media shortly afterwards indicates that it had certainly touched a raw nerve – particularly amongst former learners who’d had to face exactly the same racial grammar at school in their day.  

Indeed, it is undeniable that we are witnessing a healthy unpeeling of what I call the apartheid onion, a social organism that constitutes layers of institutional, attitudinal and geographic racism. What has happened is a healthy harbinger of social change, and is yet another signal from our youth that the racist detritus of the past must go.

But let’s get back to the onion. Institutionalised apartheid may have been struck off the law books in 1994, but vestiges of it still remain in the realm of the attitudinal layer. That is why we have the Penny Sparrows of this world whose geographical space is not from the edges of society, but its privileged centre.

Then it has to be remembered that attitudinal apartheid is more difficult to dislodge from the national psyche as it is subliminally resident in the DNA of those citizens who can’t embrace the present. And, in many ways, attitudinal apartheid is often more insidious than in-your-face racism because it skulks behind veils.

It is ironic that “liberalism” is a key word here as the hair question – one of culture as opposed to fashion – has played itself out on the terrain of the Model C school. We have to remember that the first educational institutions to liberalise themselves in terms of admitting black learners in the 1990s were the Model C schools.

The liberality was well meant, of course, but there have been unintended consequences – largely due to the subliminal factors I’ve just mentioned. Many of the teachers who insist on English only during school hours, for example, seem to be unaware of their demeaning outlook.

South Africa is a multi-lingual society. English in the Republic is a lingua franca – in business, media, academia and the government – but to police English outside of this ambit, as some educators appear to do, is a form of identity politics that engenders the uncomfortable idea of group superiority.

Those educators who seem to think that all natural hair must be straightened, or relaxed, by rules and Alice bands also don’t seem to be aware that we have a right to our bodies, and that we are all not made the same. Again, our constitution acknowledges our differences, but on the basis of social equality.

That hair became the central matter is historically relevant. Hair in the 1960s was a political declaration of being, especially in the US civil rights movement. For instance, Black Panther founder, Huey Newton, wore an afro.

Activist Angela Davis – who said we had to liberate our minds as much as society – was celebrated for her afro too, which together with the raised fist, became a badge of Black Consciousness. Then there are dreadlocks, worn by the likes of Bob Marley not as a fashion statement, but as one of Rasta culture and belief.

So why – some may ask – has the hair question only arisen now, some 22 years after democracy? The answer is self-evident if we examine the history of black migration to Model C schools. Two decades ago, when we were a lot more na├»ve about the new South Africa, parents were focused on just getting the best education for their children.

With the first prize a solid academic grounding compared to the gutter education of the apartheid era, and prospects of tertiary education, certain concessions were made.  In those early days, issues of school governance and policy were secondary compared to the rising opportunities for social and economic advancement.

No one can be blamed for wanting the best for their children. But what happened in reality was that the geography of apartheid converged with a totally separate domain that had grown accustomed to privilege, as well as institutional and attitudinal superiority – something induced by 46 years of Afrikaner apartheid and three hundred years of colonial lordship by the Dutch and the British.  

In other words, the new learners from the townships – or the rapidly expanding grey areas of our cities and towns – entered a world that was very much on the terms of the existing status quo. That was the compromise; that was the sacrifice.

But times have moved on, and an unheralded battle – often against old-fashioned ignorance and conditioned responses – has been fought at many Model C schools as black parents have started to assert themselves on the School Governing Bodies on questions of culture, hair, toleration of religious holidays, the Muslim hijab, beards and the like.

But what is so significant about the protests at Pretoria High and Sans Souci – as well as other schools – is that learners have now decided to claim the educational space for themselves on their own terms.  Of critical importance, though, is that it is not a rebellion by young learners against the system, but rather, a demand that they become a part of the system. For our democracy this can only be good news.