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Friday, 10 July 2015

Distasteful matters in biography

I am in the process of writing a biography of one of my 19th century ancestors, who gradually assumed great importance in the political life of South Africa during the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries.

I have been led to believe that my subject was sympathetic to the problems faced by his black African (‘Native’) and other non-European neighbours and fellow countrymen. This has been acknowledged by at least one black African organisation, the Steve Biko Foundation in King Williams Town. When I visited their headquarters in 2003, I saw a plaque commemorating him alongside a number of other similar memorials. He was the only white person considered to be worthy of honouring by the Foundation.

So far so good!

As I report on his activities in matters concerned with the treatment of black Africans  in King Williams Town, and then later elsewhere in South Africa, readers, many of whom are imbued with today's 'politically correct' notions, might well be surprised at what he, a so-called liberal, said and did.  The reader of an account of a far-off era must always remember that the actions and views of my ancestor, some of which may surprise the reader today, were quite liberal in comparison with those of many other South Africans of European origin. Therefore, we cannot, and should not, judge my subject's approaches to what used to be called ‘Native’ matters through 21st century eyes. Instead, we should try to understand and judge them through 19th century spectacles.  This won't make the unpalatable more palatable, but at least it makes it understandable and helps to judge more fairly a man, who meant to do his level best for those less fortunate than him.

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