There’s History, with a capital ‘H’ – the one you find written up, memorized and recited as facts, dates, inaugurations, wars, victims and statistics. And then there is the one in small caps – the history that gets under your skin: when great political systems are embodied in the tiny details of everyday life; when policies made in the soft cushions of parliaments have a devastating impact on your daily lived experience; when great power struggles are mimicked in the blood and guts of the most intimate of relationships.
Three recent books about South African history display the latter version: Marianne Thamm’s autobiography Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of Sorts, Bill Nasson’s History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016 and Wilhelm J. Verwoerd’s edited collection of tributes to his father, Verwoerd: Só onthou ons hom (“Verwoerd: This is how we remember him”). In all three these books we see History echoed in the personal histories of people, their relationships, and their life choices.
The title of Marianne Thamm’s autobiography already places her next to three great historical figures of the twentieth century. The shadow of Adolph Hitler falls across her childhood, Hendrik Verwoerd’s ghost stalks her adolescence and adulthood, and then, finally, Nelson Mandela’s legacy brings her the hope she needs to keep going in this bleak, bewildering, beloved country.
Throughout Thamm’s life she has been wrestling with the legacy that she inherited. Until shortly before the death of her father, Georg, Thamm struggles to make peace with his Nazi past and his apparent inability to adapt to a changing South Africa. Initially the constant repetition of her daughterly rebukes becomes somewhat jarring, as if the reader is brought in to observe a personal therapy session. In the former Nazi Jugend member, Thamm sees a manifestation of the intolerance, racial supremacy and ethnocentrism that diagonally oppose the values she has pursued as journalist and activist. But gradually the reader comes to realize that this relationship between child and father also serves as a larger metaphor for the continuing struggles of a younger generation of white South Africans to come to terms with their political and cultural inheritance – the historical guilt, or at least collective responsibility, they carry with them.
Thamm’s ability to tell a story is what made her a respected and popular journalist. The anecdotes of her adolescence in the suburbs, the fumbling discovery of her sexuality, and her hesitant first steps into motherhood are told with compassion, insight and self-deprecating humor, and are bound to resonate with many readers who have had similar experiences. But it is her ability to contextualize these personal experiences within the racist, homophobic, and paranoid South African society that imbues them with a much broader resonance.
A similar ability to make links between seemingly everyday events and the bigger historical maelstrom one finds in Bill Nasson, even though his is a more academic register than Thamm’s. Nasson, a historian who has taught at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, is a historian to the bone – someone who constantly experiences the present through the prism of the past, for whom the smallest of daily experiences are projected onto the large canvas of history. His anthology is an enjoyable assortment of scholarly articles, book reviews and personal recollections. His own teenage years are drawn upon to take stock of the ideals of non-racialism, while the Leitmotiv of resistance to oppression is woven through chapters on historical figures, such as Abraham Esau, a Coloured blacksmith from Calvinia who died cruelly at the hand of marauding Boers during the South African War, and in the drawing of historical comparisons such as the one between the 1916 resistance in Northern Ireland and the Boer rebellion. Culture and politics are close companions throughout, and even braaiing and cricket form part of the passing parade. Nasson also reflects on the discipline of historical writing itself, and laments the inability of many historians to make history come alive in accessible language. This is not a limitation Nasson himself suffers from.
A stark contrast to the relationship between Thamm and her father emerges in the anthology (in Afrikaans) about Hendrik Verwoerd, edited by his son (who, in his foreword, takes issue with the “clichéd accusations of Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism and more”). The book, an updated version of a commemorative collection from 2001, has now been republished with additional contributions to mark the 115th anniversary of his birth and the 50th of his death. The anthology does not attempt to provide any critical perspective, serving rather as a hagiography aimed at painting a picture of a strict, but humane “Doctor,” who could provide rational grounds for his policies of racial discrimination. You have to pinch yourself to realize that you’re actually reading this rose-tinted remembrance of Verwoerd in the year 2016, without so much as a hint of irony.
Whether anecdotes of Verwoerd as a patriarch – who chastises his son because his friend showed up at the official residence in shorts, or who gives his grandson a spoonful of sharp mustard in order to end his insistence to play with the condiments on the table – succeeds in bringing to life a kinder persona than the one associated in the history books with the design of Apartheid, is for the reader to decide. But what does feel like a historical slap in the face is the thinly veiled attempt at ameliorating Verwoerd’s legacy through a reflection on his intelligence and upright personality, as if to suggest that history judged him unfairly. After all, “Doctor didn’t easily make a mistake” (p. 283).
Tell that to Thamm’s adopted daughters, for whom racism, skeptical looks and uncomfortable questions have been part of their experiences growing up. It is in those casual comments at the nursery school, those stares at the supermarket, and in the unchecked callousness of friends that one once again hears the echoes of great historical narratives resound through the small dramas of the everyday. In his son’s eyes, Verwoerd might have been a good father and a family man, but that doesn’t make the smallest of dents in his political and social legacy. No amount of banal tales of how he interacted with his family, colleagues or friends can undo the indisputable historical fact that he was the architect of an evil system of which the tentacles can still be felt today in every aspect of our public and private lives. There is a line by the Afrikaans poet D.J. Opperman that, roughly translated, goes: “always remember, around your actions borders an eternity.”
History, as told by these three authors, reminds us that the past is not something that can or should be left behind. Rather, as History echoes in the histories of our daily lives – in the supermarket, at the pre-school, on the cricket pitch, beside the fire at a braai – we are morally obliged to keep reflecting on them. Didn’t a verse in the old Nationalist anthem Die Stem ask for the inheritances of our fathers to remain inheritances to our children?
Be careful, as they say, what you pray for.