Nadine Gordimer: Ten years after apartheid, we are forging a new history

We cannot understand ourselves without knowing and acknowledging the past

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To think we can look back at freedom as part of our history: a decade of attainment to follow on the long struggle against colonialism and its culmination in apartheid.

To think we can look back at freedom as part of our history: a decade of attainment to follow on the long struggle against colonialism and its culmination in apartheid.

But what is history? The dictionary says: "A narrative of events; a story; a chronicle. A chronological record of events, as of a life, development of a country, the branch of knowledge that records and analyses past events."

From our experience of past centuries recorded and of the more immediate times within living memory, and finally in the lifetimes of even the young among us, we could add several further definitions.

To begin with: History is traditionally written by the victors in the conflict. It seems it is one of the fruits of victory: sweet for the victor, bitter for the vanquished. In our own case, our own South Africa, our own African continent, history has long been written and therefore taught from the point of the beliefs, the analyses of colonialists, for whether Dutch, British, Portuguese, French, Belgian, German, they were the victors over the indigenous peoples.

History has its phases, or its progress, whichever way the victors look at it. The history that was colonialism has ended, overcome in a struggle of many kinds over many years. In the 10 years of freedom we are celebrating this year we have been confronted among many other problems with the need to unmask, to uncover from its old colonial wrappings, the other side of our history.

I do not want to fall back on the term "alternative history", because I believe it would be as unrealistic as colonial histories were. To establish as much of the truth as is possible, while we are in the present, is our only guarantee of creating the best of democracy for the future, from our admirable start in a single decade.

But there is a vital adjunct to the historical chronicle. Individual people make the history. The individuals whose lives, before the historic dates, before the day and hour of crisis, the continuation of whose lives must go on beyond the blood, exile, imprisonment and sacrifice: it is this that is completed in literature - fiction, poetry, plays.

For the story, the poem, the play, are what the lives, the temperaments, the personal commitments making rightful demands against the rightful, urgent demands of public action for freedom; how these demands were lived by individuals, how their destiny of justice and freedom led to the crisis of confrontation, and how those who survived the terrible events and their consequences, continued to affirm life and live, indomitably.

Stephen Clingman, the South African scholar and biographer of Bram Fischer, found the phrase for the role of literature in history. He calls literature "history from the inside", what goes on in the hearts, minds and bodies of people before and after the events which make history. In pre-colonial and early colonial times, this contribution of literature to complete history was oral, and today, fortunately, the oral tradition is being revived as part of our literary heritage; cultural heritage.

Succeeding oral literature we have had, and have, "history from the inside", from Sol Plaatje's ground-breaking Mhudi, through Vilakazi's poetry to William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe in which he wrote in 1921: "The black man is not the question, he is the answer." This follows through Olive Schreiner, and Alan Paton's liberal cry for the beloved country, all the way with writers, some of them banned, as I was: Peter Abrahams, Dennis Brutus, Alex La Guma, André Brink, Miriam Tlali, Breyten Breytenbach, Lewis Nkosi, James Matthews, Don Mattera and Mandla Langa.

These are some of those creators of our literature who have made South Africa's history of its people "from the inside". With the new historians, they transform the untold into the complete; what we have been, how we reached the attainment of selfhood.

We cannot understand ourselves without knowing and acknowledging the past; that knowledge and understanding is the only guarantee we human beings have of never being doomed to repeat the past, its ghastly injustices, terrible events, its cost in suffering. To stride in the open air of democracy, our hard-won freedom, we need our historians and our makers of literature, the poets, the novelists, the playwrights. And to bring to light the new creative literary talents among young people we need a literate population, in city, village and so-called informal settlement, at all levels and ages.

In 10 years, the people of South Africa have achieved so much: may literacy for all in the new decade bring this basic human right, this essential for developing the economy, for any working life, and the lifelong revelation and joy of reading, to all. May we create the libraries, and nurture the new historians, poetry, prose and play writers to fill the shelves with what we have been, what we are, how we are making the present, and see the future of our country.

The article is based on a speech by the Nobel laureate marking the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid

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