To my mind ignorance of history might be the route leading us to self-destruction. Roughly 50 years ago, I recall my headmaster at Umtali Boys High, Mr. ‘Koney’ Fleming, coming into our history class to speak to us. I was most surprised to hear him say this might be our most important subject because without a solid understanding on where you come from you are unlikely to know where you’re going.
I look back with a sense of indebtedness to the teachers who did so well in enlightening us as to what had transpired in years past to bring us to where we were then. I have never forgotten Koney’s words and sadly, for most of my life, I have seen his predictions played out in the world I have lived in.
Last week, across the Atlantic, with joyful abandon, an unruly mob tore down the statue of Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate general, that once stood prominently in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cannot help but wonder if these ‘activists’ would have done this, had they known some of the history of their country? Because if they did, they would know that the man whose monument they have desecrated, was a critical figure in setting the stage for the development of the most powerful, most prosperous country the world has ever seen, along with the freedom of expression that they have used to denigrate him and destroy his legacy.
The truth is, after years of murderous civil war, with brothers killing brothers, and Lee in total control of his forces, with many determined to continue the fight, he looked to the future and decided on peace and a united America. Only he had the power to end the war and he used it. This watershed decision earned him the love and respect of friends and former foes including President Lincoln and Union General Grant. President Franklin Roosevelt called Lee “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.’
In America today, his statue might well be replaced by one of George Floyd, a convicted criminal, a drug addict with a violent past who died resisting arrest for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. If this is the mentality of modern America, where Floyd is adored and Lee despised, then one can only wonder if the country can possibly be on the right trajectory.
In similar vein, South Africans have turned on General Jan Smuts as a villain of the past who needs to obliterated from the national consciousness. Like Lee, he was a brave soldier, a brilliant Boer-war general who fought fiercely but fairly against the British to be rid of foreign interference in the affairs of a burgeoning Afrikaner nation. He endured enormous hardship in the process, and he too could have fought on with the support of his troops; but he, along with General Botha, opted for a peace that they thought would be in the interests of all their countrymen, and not just the Afrikaners. This crucial decision, along with the courage to lead in a different direction, provided the platform for the union of states that became the most powerful, most prosperous country in Africa.
At the same time Cecil Rhodes is also being condemned to villainy, portrayed as a crooked capitalist and a racist who did little more than exploit and extort. The fact that this view now filters through the corridors of Oxford University leads me to despair of the quality of instruction at one of the world’s great institutes of learning.
The fact is, it was Rhodes, in a show of enormous physical and moral courage, who stopped his troops, hungry for revenge, from fighting on, and made peace with the Matabele Indunas, that laid the foundation, for arguably, the fastest development of a country, in history. Through his foresight and magnanimity, modern technology and infrastructure was rapidly introduced and the quality of life, for millions of people, was vastly improved. But for this he is banished to infamy. The irony is that Rhodes was revered by the Matabele people as a man of honour and peacemaker. It was they who gave him their unconditional Royal Salute at his funeral in the Matopos Hills – the only white man ever to have been accorded this singular honour by this proud, magnificent tribe.
With the news from Zimbabwe that the populace must accept a minimum of 12 hours a day with no electrical power, and South Africa in the grip of an energy crisis, I was moved to wonder why this has come to be, thinking back to what once was, and what might have been.
Hardly anyone in Zimbabwe will have ever heard of Godfrey Huggins but he was the federal premier who presciently predicted the pressing need for the production of cheap and abundant electrical power if the country, indeed the then Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, were to develop as quickly as he hoped.
Thanks largely to him, a small outpost of the then Empire, in what had recently been a lawless wilderness, raised one of the biggest international loans in history, built the largest dam in the world, and transformed an entire region by providing the power that would facilitate the economic growth that would benefit millions.
Like Huggins, General Smuts, fully understood the pressing need for the generation of cheap electrical power and was convinced that that capacity combined with the production of steel and iron ore, would take his country up to a new level as an economic and industrial power. History tells us Smuts was staggered to hear of the estimated costs involved but possessed of the acumen to understand what his clever technocrats told him, he took the political plunge and backed the plan. This set South Africa on the way to developing highly sophisticated thermal generators and on to become a nuclear power.
Unfortunately, the effort to make the country the electrical powerhouse of Africa quickly unravelled under the new political dispensation after 1994 and the need to import power has become a reality.
The reason there is little hope for any change for the better, is because too few Zimbabweans and South Africans know about their respective pasts, so the mistakes of history are bound to be repeated.
After all this is a continent that reveres the memory of people like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel and Robert Mugabe, to name but a few. The post-colonial leaders have done an impressive job of wholly destroying their colonial legacies but I’m not sure what they have improved upon. But then maybe I’m reading the wrong history books.