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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


DE VLLLIERS, Johan. The discipline of history and the New South Africa - should South African history be re-written?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.2, pp.198-208. ISSN 2224-7912.

History is a discipline of humanities which records and analyses past events. It is a narrative or chronicle of human endeavour and experience in time. Constant change is an intrinsic characteristic of all forms of history. Traditional cyclical views of history have long ago been replaced by a linear cognisance and presentation of past events in a chronological sequence, implying a beginning and an expected fulfilment. This means that previous individuals, societies and developments are unique. Consequently, the question arises whether it is of any use to acquire a thorough knowledge of past events and achievements. A qualified YES would be the appropriate answer. Change is a paradoxical idea. It is the notion of alteration combined with the notion of remaining the same. According to Michael Oakeshott change is nothing other than inherent continuity. One should distiguish between the past as such and written history. The historian must rely on multiple voices of the past, sometimes called representations ofpastness. Such evidence of the past may be found in written documents, oral recollections and artefacts. The historian can never truly know the complete reality of the past. It is the historian's duty to reveal existing myths and to convey to the world what they discover about past reality in order to promote the legitimate use of history and check the abuse of this vital human science. From the explanation of historical scholarship mentioned above it seems unfair and unnecessary to ask whether South African history should be re-written at the commencement of the twenty first century. In the re-writing of South African history new issues, challenges and opportunities must always be addressed within the context of our particular time and environment in a responsible manner. In present day South Africa historians are faced with a complex, fragmented and heterogeneous rainbow nation. A truly South African identity is in continuous development. This requires constant re-interpretation, revision and re-writing of history, based on all available and accessible sources. Each generation is bound to write its own history. Today the wheel of history has undoubtedly turned, due to fresh and challenging questions asked by a new generation. During the previous century four distinct phases of South African history developed, namely English orientated liberal history, Afrikaner nationalistic history, Marxist radical history and Africanist nationalistic history. Today the re-interpretation of South African history demands a new perspective of the South African position within the global household. In a multi-cultural society each group will have to maintain its own particular or private history to appreciate its own identity. Such individual histories may subsequently contribute to a more general and balanced history of South Africa. During the past two decades van Aswegen's History of South Africa to 1854, Liebenberg en Spies' South Africa in the Twentieth Century and Giliomee and Mbenga's A New History of South Africa attempted to re-interpret our past. Such representative histories can never be final. The result will always remain open and incomplete. A multi-perspective approach to the past seems to be, however, the most acceptable and appropriate focus on the vast and intricate background of South Africa's unique population. A few guidelines may serve the purpose of achieving a comprehensive history of South Africa in our present situation. We need to take account of the different prevailing traditions and perceptions of past reality in our communities. We must avoid a tunnel vision in our research approach and appreciate the fact that South Africa is an integral part of the world at large. In a truly democratic society historical consciousness and knowledge will provide essential qualities to a vibrant community life and responsible citizenship.The teaching of history at all levels must be promoted by well trained and enthusiastic teachers and lecturers.The reading culture of society must be supported by well stocked libraries and the availability of electronic media. Newspapers, radio and television must stimulate critical thinking about the past. Cultural museums and heritage sites must constantly remind people of their common roots and proud ancestors. Thus the history of South Africa will be constantly re-assessed and re-written, not because previous historians produced poor histories, but because the context within which their histories were written, has dramatically changed.

Keywords : Change and continuity; New South Africa and New history; rewriting and re-interpretation; discipline of history; speculative philosophies of history; theoretical aspects; truth and reality; Western civilisation.

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