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Why should I have to go to Britain to access our history?

File photo: Denis Farrell/AP

File photo: Denis Farrell/AP

Published Jan 29, 2017

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To see people from all over the world marvelling at our history, while that history is not available to our own children, is truly painful, writes Xolela Mangcu.

I am at the British Museum, which is just across the street from my office in the Senate Building of the University of London - a remarkable building.

Within the building is housed the School of Advanced Study, which in turn consists of nine humanities institutes, including the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, where I am based.

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This is arguably the highest concentration of humanities in one building anywhere in the world, but what really strikes me is the idea of a nation that decided a long time ago to invest in its intellectual infrastructure, and put the humanities at the heart of national development.

The National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) this year will be hosting a lecture series on decolonisation, starting in March with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of a handful of Africa’s most revered writers.

Think Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi. His book, Decolonizing the Mind, is the defining text on decolonisation. But Ngugi has never stopped churning them out. His short story, The Upright Revolution, has been translated into 61 languages, making it the most translated short story.

This will be followed by Homi Bhabha, whose critical take on decolonisation changed the field. And then, of course, the most influential black scholar in the world, Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates jr will follow later.

The main thrust behind inviting these scholars is to get them to engage with the epistemological revolution that our students have thrust on a resistant academy over the past few years.

What the School of Advanced Study example demonstrates is that national government investment in education is crucial for progress.

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And that brings me back to my visit to the British Museum. I am here at the behest of Joanne Davis, whose work continues to open the envelope even wider on what we know about South Africa’s first black public intellectual, Tiyo Soga. Her latest finding about Soga is going to blow everybody’s mind.

She has invited me to see the museum’s exhibition on 100 000 years of South African art. That’s right - 100 000 years. The art pieces go back to the rock paintings of the San people right through to gold figurines of Mapungubwe to artefacts in wood, metal, glass and fibre by Sotho, Tswana and Venda people going back 1500 years. The exhibition boldly states that it seeks to explode “the myth of the empty land” often propagated in defence of colonial occupation of South Africa.

The physical evidence of human presence in South Africa for hundreds of thousands of years, and the intermixing that took place is so abundant that one wonders why the theory of the empty land should even have a grain of credibility.

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Late Cornell University academic Martin Bernal once said we make a mistake to reduce the history of Africa to the past 500 years of European colonisation. That Africa had a pride of place in the European imagination was a point made by George Frederickson in his little, but expansive, book, Racism: A Short History.

The belief that Egypt was the source of Greek civilisation was widely accepted right through the Italian Renaissance. In his inaugural lecture as professor at the School of Advanced Study last week, Greg Woolf gave a nod to Bernal’s arguments by calling for an end to the denial of Egypt in the development of modern civilisation.

As I walk out of the museum I see a large group gathered in one of the hallways. They are viewing the historic Rosetta Stone. In 196 BC, Egyptian rulers wrote a decree on the stone, which was re-interpreted in different languages over the centuries. And this was towards the end of Egypt’s 3000-year civilisation. 

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Those who place Europe at the forefront of modern progress speak either out of ignorance or a deliberate misrepresentation of history. Just because European modernity was violently imposed on the world does not mean that is the only way the world could have developed. So decolonisation must have a process of including what has historically been left out of the curriculum.

I suspect the reason our universities do not teach this history of African civilisation is that it would turn the fable of European supremacy on its head.

Our universities find this hard to do, because on that very fable is built their culture and identity.

As I lift my head from one of the art pieces, my eyes lock with those of the only black person in the crowd. He gives a nod, and says: “Eita”. It turns out we know each other from our favourite haunt in Randburg, Tsa Afrika.

Almost instantaneously we ask each other why we should have to come to Britain to have access to this history? To see people from all over the world marvelling at our history, while that history is not available to our own children, is truly painful, especially when we have universities that could easily make it available.

To continue to refuse this history would constitute nothing less than evidentiary genocide.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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