Potiphar12's Blog
An Octogenarian in the modern world


This is a book I would never have read if it had not bee)n recommended to me by a fellow-resident in the Old People’s Home where we live. (a.k.a. Luxury Retirement Village.)

The writer (Dervla Murphy) is an Irish woman of great courage and determination who travelled around South Africa by bicycle just before and after the first free elections and the end of apartheid. She has numerous descriptions of the countryside, but far the greater part of her book records conversations with a huge variety of people about politics. The views she reports are immensely interesting and told me much that I never knew. It makes the creation of a united South Africa seem a fantastic task given the variety of different people, from different countries and cultures, that make up the population.

The book makes clear the extreme difficulty of realising and avoiding ones own inherited attitudes. I wonder at times, whether her sympathy with whoever is at present the underdog owes something to English oppression in Ireland. And is she a bit extreme in attributing to whoever is on top a desire to grow rich by exploiting others?

It seems to me that when a more technically developed society comes in contact with a less developed one then the latter is certain to suffer. The ‘invaders’ will bring with them their standard attitudes, but will do it out of habit and not out of malice or greed. Perhaps the troubles of South Africa started with the fact that Europe in the 19th Century was truly powerful, and knew it. There was evidence that white people were superior.

A difference in attitudes became very clear to me when the book discusses the Voortrekker Monument. Dervla Murphy sees it as ugly, and as a despicable record of what Afikaaners did to black people. I liked the place, and saw it as a record of how a freedom-loving group escaped from British control. There are two different views about who was the underdog.

Creating a ‘better’society can easily lead to eradicating he past in the interests of what is believed to be correct in the present. This strikes me as extremely dangerous because one can’t then learn from history: neither the good lessons to be followed or the bad actions to be avoided. History happened – for good or bad – and contributed to the present state. Nobody is going to pull down the Voortrekker Monument, but pulling down statues is much easier. Is it really wise to pull down the statue of that evil creature Saddam Hussein? He did exist and he did have an effect – on his own country and on others. There have been attempts (happily unsuccessful) to deny The Holocaust. There has been a call to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

Attempts to air-brush the past are surely wrong. Many uncomfortable things have been done, sometimes excused for political reasons. In the UK, humans were dispossessed in favour of sheep in the highland clearances. And the UK owned Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean: the British Army forcefully evicted the population in the 1960s, before leasing it to the United States for military purposes. We should remember both the facts, and the reasons.

Hopefully, the history of South African will be spared the air-brush.



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