It is a sad fact but I the further an event moves into the past the more it becomes subject to ambiguity and various interpretations of what actually happened. Case in point is our South African history and more specifically the details of the historical event of Boers eastward/ north-eastward emigration out of the cape colony and out from under the British rule to their own independence. Known as the great trek.

I still believe firmly that understanding the past makes us tolerate the present and gives hope for the future. Without understanding our countries or any person(s)/group(s) past opens the door for selfish demands and unfair projections of truth, justice and leads to war, death and despair. Sound a bit drastic? Not really. There is a generation of people growing up in South Africa with warped and completely contrasting ideas of what really happened in our countries past. This warped idea of where that persons family, ancestors came from and how they were taken advantage of, or prospered, grew and developed is being taught to their children, and eventually their children…leaving is with the truth of history forgotten.

Let’s take a look at a real example I came across recently:White elderly lady in her 70’s arguing with a young black girl who claims the elderly lady stole her parking spot:

Young girl: I was here first did you not see my indicator?
Elderly lady: What do you mean you were here first? Your indicator was not on! I was here first!
….
…this escalated quickly to race…
….
Young girl: Typical you white people, always taking everything you see! If not our land.. then our parking!
Elderly lady: Listen to me! If it was not for me and my people you would still be building mud huts in the desert!

As horrific as this argument is, clearly there is a very specific belief about the other persons past which may or may not be true. The young  girl believes the white lady is a land grabber chasing black people off their land, synonymous with warmonger, greed, etc. And the white lady believes she is owed a thank you for bringing schools, education, intelligence, civilization to Africa and to the benefit of the young lady who are ungrateful.

This is why I decided to take a history lesson on our country and where our people came from. I am shocked at the various interpretations I received while trying to read more about our countries history. I started way back from the day Jan van Riebeeck landed on the Cape shores and slowly  moved ahead up until the institutionalization of Apartheid and the laws accompanying it.  It was not long into my history lesson that I realized that I was taught in school is in no way the same as the one I am reading now. Now I know the internet is full of crap, and you can’t believe everything you read. But in staying objective I used various sources. I spoke so teachers, people that have their degrees in history at universities, reading .gov sites, Wikipedia, historical encyclopaedias and even querying friends’ knowledge all confirmed the same point: Nobody agrees on what really happened.

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Regarding our countries origin story like the colonization, slavery, great trek, wars, independence and apartheid there are 3 very strong of views from 3 main players. The British, the Afrikaner and the Zulu/Xhosa view (I am sure there are more but for now let’s leave it at these).

  • I was taught the great trek happened due to the Boers wanting to be free from the oppression of British rule. Hence they emigrated east/north-east inland in an attempt to find their own land. This oppression from the British occurred in many forms: religious threat, unfair trading compensations with the British, demands to learn English, restrictive farming laws, lack of assistance with wars against Zulus, etc. It made pretty sense to me. My understanding was simple: The English were the baddies, we were the goodies and the Native Zulus/Xhosa’s were the warmongering nations that stood in our way on our journey of finding peace and land of our own.
  • Reading government sites with its extensive list of historical resources and content the same historical event paints a different picture. According to these official governmental sites “In 1836 the Great Trek started where 12 000 frontier farmers, who demonstrated their unhappiness about the government’s policy to release slaves from their control.” It goes further and mentions “The abolition of slavery was one of the main contributing factors leading to the Great Trek (starting in 1835) from the Cape Colony. Piet Retief, in his famous manifesto to the Grahamstown Journal, wrote: “We complain of the severe losses, which we have been forced to sustain by the emancipation of our slaves, and the vexatious laws, which have been enacted respecting them”. Though the abolition of slavery has been historically treated as the main cause of the Great Trek, there were other equally compelling reasons for the settlers to leave the Cape Colony.” This makes the Boers the cruel slave driving baddies and the slaves (who were primarily black) the poor souls that are being starved and beaten to death.

Slavery? Never in my life have I heard this side before! Can it be true? Wikipedia also lists the abolition of slavery as A reason for great unhappiness among the white farmers/Boers and the British ruling authorities, but not in such a cruel manner. Yet there is a part of me that feels it can be true… or part of it. Without any slaves the Boers of that time had literally no workers on their farms which meant zero income. Hearing the other side of the truth I learned that vexatious is a key word in the above quote. The British was willing to compensate the Boers for their slaves but the Boers had to travel to England to go fetch the money…and for a Boer who farmed daily this was not possible. Then there’s also views on how the Boers treated the slaves because they were unbelievers deserving of nothing because they are going to hell anyway. The Boers lack of humanity shown towards the slaves were recorded on many occasions simply they all shared a sense of spiritual superiority.

Reading on it just became more and more intense. The lands that was stolen from the Zulu’s, or was it fairly traded? The wars that was started by the British, or was it the Boers, or the Xhosa’s? The hundreds and thousands of blacks that was rescued from poverty (or were they the dying survivors of a war) and given jobs as servants (captured as slaves)? Or were these servants simply a glorified new means of practicing slavery? Apartheid as an initial goal and means of keeping various races separate and in their own communities, or a gross meticulous plan to keep a race of people uneducated slaves working as slaves? Who were the real warmongers? Who were the baddies? What really happened?

I’m confused, but somewhere in there is the truth.

What does this mean? Will we one day argue about how many Jews were slaughtered by the Nazi’s? Will the numbers change from 6 million to 1 million? Will we dispute how many plains flew into the World Trade Center?

Understanding the past makes us tolerate the present and gives hope for the future. I guess the only question is which past do you choose to believe?