By David Saks (Thoughtleader)
The good news regarding my recent visit to the Anglo-Boer War battlefields around Ladysmith is that the numerous military cemeteries scattered around there are in remarkably good condition. The bad news is that the UK, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is to a very large extent paying for it. “So let them pay”, I hear you saying. Why reject a free gift, after all? But that’s not the point. What bothers me is that official concern for this country’s historical heritage is at so low a premium that a foreign country has to shell out to protect it.
I was reliably informed that when a senior official of the KwaZulu-Natal heritage department was approached about the need to maintain British war graves, he dismissively remarked that those soldiers should never have been here in the first place, so to hell with them. This brought to my mind the diametrically opposite attitude of Turkey when it comes to the graves of those British and Australian troops who died in the Gallipoli battles some nine decades ago. Those cemeteries are maintained with loving care, no less than those of the Turkish soldiers who also died. At one of the Gallipoli remembrance ceremonies not long ago, the Turkish speaker stated that those foreigners who had fought, died and were now buried on Turkish soil had become “their sons” as well. Such generosity of spirit would seem to be in short supply over here, at least so far as the establishment goes.
As always when dealing with South Africa, one must take into account the race factor. Is it realistic, after all, to expect a black majority country to devote itself to preserving historical sites associated with the period of white colonial domination? To that, I would rejoin that important heritage sites relating to the black population would seem to be similarly neglected. I was dismayed, for example, to see how derelict and forgotten was the grave of Ngqika, one of the legendary founding chiefs of the Xhosa.
On the positive side, one can point to the excellent conservation work being done by ordinary individuals in a volunteer capacity. Today, English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans work amicably together in preserving and commemorating this country’s Anglo-Boer War heritage. This was certainly not the case during the apartheid era, when old antagonisms were still very much alive. Much of their work involves countering the mindless vandalism of graves and monuments that is continually taking place.
Even those who care nothing about history should at least value it as a source of tourist revenue. A steady stream of enthusiasts, local and foreign, continue to visit out of the way places they would otherwise have no reason to go near because of the important historical events that took place in their vicinity. That in itself should persuade the powers that be that maintaining our heritage sites is the right thing to do.
At the moment, we largely have the UK to thank for doing what we should be doing ourselves.
Monday, July 06, 2009
By David Saks (Thoughtleader)