My 12-year-old son recently chose Ashley Kriel for his school history profile. The problem was precious little reference material he had to work with, says the writer.
History has always been important to me. I’m drawn to the stories of yesteryear that changed the course of our world and the characters who left indelible marks in their wake.

It reminds me of the time I was editor of the Cape Times and enjoyed a Masala Steak Gatsby from Mariam’s Kitchen with a senior colleague on the editor's meeting table.

We were deep into the meal when the colleague pointed out we were sitting at the very table on which the founder of the newspaper, almost 130 years before, counted the first proceeds from the sales of the first edition of the Cape Times.

I nearly choked on a mouthful of Gatsby. But then I revelled at the thought that I was making a bit of history of my own: the first Gatsby meal on this table and in this editor’s office.

This week I was fortunate to be treated to a tour of the campus of the University of the Western Cape, where I started working in the media department at the beginning of this month.

The first stop was an unassuming building that wasn’t initially part of the original campus.

The building houses the nursing department and the university’s senate. And to my astonishment it was the building where the coloured affairs' parliament sat in the apartheid 1960s.

I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide. Hardi Zacharias is a UWC events co-ordinator by day but a full-time history enthusiast, especially when it comes to the university. Hardi told me the coloured affairs chaps packed up and left their parliament to join the tri-cameral parliament.

The university, located right next door, eventually claimed the building. It retained the parliament in its original form and it is where UWC’s senate sits today.

But the mural painted on the wall outside the parliament really struck me.

It depicted farmworkers, construction workers, nurses and sewing machinists - in other words the coloured labour force.

In the background of the mural is a marching brigade of policemen keeping a close eye.

It’s only when Hardi tells me to turn around and look through the large windows at the imposing white building directly opposite the senate building that the delicious irony hits me. This impressive building is marked “chemical science” - a symbol of the fantastic failure of the coloured affairs parliament and the apartheid regime to keep people of colour in their place as labourers.

Closer to home, my 12-year-old son recently chose Ashley Kriel for his school history profile after watching Nadine Cloete’s gripping documentary Action Kommandant about the young anti-apartheid activist from Bonteheuwel.

The problem was precious little reference material he had to work with, save for two published profile pieces that were based on interviews I did with Cloete and Kriel’s family.

I was immensely proud that my son was delving into the Struggle history of our country but also acutely aware of all the untold stories of our past.

Next Saturday, on June 16, I will help to remedy that by chairing a conversation at the launch of a documentary called Salt River High 1976 - The Untold Story. The documentary tells the story of the first successful march by pupils from my old high school to the Cape Town CBD, as part of the 1976 student uprisings.

The short film tells the story of a group of youth, two teachers and a parent - who were arrested after the march under the cruel and oppressive legislation of the time.

I had no idea about my high school’s history until about two years ago and that really worries me. The absence of these stories affects the decisions we take in our daily lives.

The name Krotoa has been put forward as a contender for the renaming of Cape Town International Airport and it becomes such an obvious and apt choice.

Those who oppose the renaming to Krotoa International Airport should do themselves a favour and delve into our history. They will discover that the Khoisan princess Krotoa was one of the first activists against oppression of the indigenous people of South Africa, by the Dutch invaders of the Cape.

The debate about whether to make history a compulsory subject at our schools is crucial. But whether compulsory or not, history needs to enjoy special status in the hierarchy of school subjects, especially because of our fractured past. And simply so that the brutality of colonialism and apartheid is never allowed to happen again.

As I drive through the campus on the way to the office every morning, I’m reminded by Hardi’s words about how it’s hard to chart a course to where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. We need history on our side.

* Follow more of Abarder’s musings on Twitter - @GasantAbarder.