Monday, October 08, 2007

Thanksgiving Thoughts (with little reference to thanksgiving)

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. I am grateful that Lois continues to recover, although with occasional headaches and mild mood swings. A concussion will do that to you! We are expecting two families to join us for supper -- one from Zambia, and one from Singapore/Korea. It should be an enjoyable evening.

But my thoughts turn instead to something that I am reading, a History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson. Given that I grew up in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and given my continuing concern with Southern Africa as a whole, Thompson's work is of great interest to me.

I could reflect on various aspects of the story: the way that the indigenous peoples worked with and fought with each other; the story of the European settlers, whose efforts transformed the region for good and for ill; the difficulty of encompassing all the divergent stories in one primary story of the country as a whole. But I make two points only.

One builds on the last of the short list above: divergent stories held in tension within one story. Going to school in Rhodesia of old, I learned the story from the White Settler perspective. Our story was the narrative into which the stories of subject peoples were expected to fit, and within which their lives were supposed to find meaning. Now that perspective is reversed, and our story is seen as smaller than we thought -- important, but only a part of the whole. Our story now derives its meaning from the narrative of the majority peoples of Southern Africa.

The change in perspective is humbling, but necessary if we are to understand what our part really has been in this part of the world. The majority narrative may not understand our story fully; but the total picture surely belongs to the indigenous people of Africa. We are made part of the whole, and the meaning of our part depends on the whole.

Two is a mild critique of one statement that Thompson makes. He suggests that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was ultimately a failure, by which I think he means that it did not bring about a full reconciliation between the races of South Africa. In this he is certainly correct; but I suggest that his definition of success is unnecessarily strict.

Without the TRC, we do not know what would have been over the past 10 years of the new South Africa. Certainly deep divisions remain, primarily (but not exclusively) along racial lines. Certainly many hurts continue to fester. But so difficult and damaging were the decades before 1994 that even a successful TRC could not simply heal all that had happened. It may be that these past 10 years would have been worse, not simply the same, as they in fact were.

Insofar as I have a point, it is this: the story is always more complex than any brief history can describe. Thompson knows that and does a superb job of writing succinctly and accurately. But here (and at a few other points in the book) I think he forgot what he knows. Greater credit than he gives is due to De Klerk, and to other White activists over the past 200 years, and to ordinary people Black and White who were not simply pawns of apartheid.

I don't know if South Africa will move beyond the depressing histories of Zimbabwe and other countries where one-party rule has led to brutal dictatorship. It may; it may not. I don't know. But so far, the progress made is worth a Thanksgiving.