Mythology

I remember as if it were yesterday our reactions as black primary school children when we read what the Reverend Mr. Whitehead had to say when describing the relations between the Xhosas on the eastern border and the white frontiersmen. Mr. Whitehead was, I believe, a Methodist missionary who wrote a history textbook which we were obliged to use if we wanted to pass our history examinations. I must underline that my contemporaries and I were not the radicalized and highly politicized students of the sort who were involved in the 1976 uprising and in the current violent protest against the vicious and immoral policy of apartheid. We were rather docile and thoroughly unsophisticated and naive, hardly questioning what appeared to be the divine ordering of our segregated society. It is therefore particularly noteworthy that it was such innocents who found certain features of Mr. Whitehead’s historiography disturbing.

We found it distinctly odd that in virtually every encounter between the black Xhosas and the white settlers, Mr. Whitehead invariably described the Xhosas as those who stole the settlers’ cattle and of the white settlers he would write that the settlers captured the cattle from the Xhosas. We did not press this point at all, or hardly at all, in class discussion; but when we were outside we would mutter that it was very funny. It certainly seemed to be stretching coincidence to breaking point. We often remarked that after all, these farmers had no cattle when they landed in South Africa, and all their cattle had had to be procured from the indigenous peoples.

But if we had given expression to any of these misgivings it would have put an end to our chances of success in the examinations. We would have committed South Africa’s unforgivable sin of mixing politics with whatever else we were at the time dealing with. At other times we were a little annoyed to read that such and such a white person had “discovered” this or that, as if there had been no other human beings, for example, to see the Victoria Falls before this superior denizen of another hemisphere came upon them.

These were the vague and unformed misgivings and perhaps hurt feelings of somewhat unsophisticated and really unlettered black pupils, feelings that had not been buttressed by any scholarly research or evidence that could stand up to critical scrutiny. Much later we heard a great deal about Western historical objectivity; it all seemed to suggest that Western historians were able to describe the naked, the real facts without any kind of embellishment or accretion, that they were quite uninfluenced by who they were and where they were, able, as it were, to stand outside themselves and give an account of what had “really” taken place, which would in all material respects be the same account given by any other self-respecting historian.

I have been skeptical of this claim to objectivity especially when it was made in South Africa about journalism (which …

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