Lesotho Times

SA choked by the yoke of slavery

slaverySlavery has had a great and en­during effect on the formation of our national character, says Gerard Boyce.
By Gerard Boyce

SEPTEMBER is Heritage Month and time to reflect on questions of national identity and what it means to be South African.
Arguably, these questions are likely to be more poignant this year, tinged as they are with the growing realisation of Madiba’s mortality and amid speculation on what the loss of his unifying presence and the spirit of forgiveness and racial reconciliation which he embodies might mean for national unity.
It is during uncertain times like these that the desire to commemo­rate a shared experience to which all citizens can relate becomes more acute.

This can be seen in the appeal of inane concepts like “Braai Day” that seem to be more motivated by com­mercial enterprises than a genuine desire to celebrate our shared her­itage, and only serves to highlight just how divided we are.

The search for commonality in superficial displays is unsatisfying and as flimsy as the Chinese-made flags we are exhorted to wave every time one of our national sporting teams is in action.

A far more rewarding enterprise would be if we commemorated an experience which all could agree has charted the course of our de­velopment and shaped the heritage which we have been bequeathed.

According our slave past a more prominent place in our national memory may serve this purpose particularly well. Most would agree that slavery has had a great and en­during effect on the formation of our national character.

Not only did it form the basis of the country’s economic development but it continues to provide the blueprint for the nation’s socioeco­nomic structure 20 years after ra­cial equality was enshrined into our highest laws.

Slavery has also affected us in less obvious but no less profound ways. Take the dispossession and oppression of black people during apartheid.
How much justification for these actions can be found in slave-era be­liefs that members of certain races were inherently inferior and that it was part of the natural order of things to be subjected to it by mem­bers of more supposedly civilised races?
Or consider the high rates of vio­lence in many communities.

Surely it is less far-fetched to believe this is a reflection of the in­ternalisation of centuries of oppres­sion which served to systematically strip blacks of their sense of self-worth than it is to subscribe to the simplistic hypothesis that poverty causes violence or members of some communities are predisposed to vio­lence.
How many of the poor and un­employed, members of some of the most marginalised groups in soci­ety, would disagree that a person’s worth seems intimately related to their economic output in this age of hyper-capitalism?

Or what about the all-pervasive and often irrational fear that grips members of relatively more affluent groups in society, whites in particu­lar?
Does this fear not mimic the dy­namics that existed in slave socie­ties wherein slaveholders lived in constant fear of slave insurrection?
Viewed from this perspective, slavery can be thought of as the “original sin” into which modern South Africa was born and with which every generation of South Af­ricans is tainted.

Acknowledging and confronting slavery’s legacy is the only way for successive generations to counter the tendency towards mistrust and division.
For this reason, it is proposed that greater focus be placed on the role of slavery in shaping our national her­itage this Heritage Month.
In light of the insidiousness of its effects, not to mention reports that the international slave trade is still the lucrative market it was 200 years ago, it is proposed that Herit­age Day be abolished and replaced by a national Emancipation Day holiday.

Isn’t this the message of global solidarity, unity of purpose and the belief that together we can overcome even the greatest of evils, which all South Africans would be proud to celebrate as part of their national heritage?

* Boyce is a researcher in the School of Accounting, Finance and Economics at UKZN. — IOL ­
­

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