Final Word

When history remains “his story” instead of being our story

HUNTER.jpg

In the increasingly heated debate about land “restitution” in South Africa it is important to establish real the facts of history instead of everyone just sticking to his story (or her, if you want) about the past. History must become our story.

And, truth be told, the real original occupiers of the land have all the right in the world to use a truly African proverb to describe their position: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.”

Why history is so important for true restitution, is locked up in the very word that represents the concept.

The word restitution arrived in English during the late 13th or early 14th century from the Old French word restitucion or maybe directly from Latin’s restitutionem (nominative restitutio) "a restoring," from the noun restituere, meaning to "set up again, restore, rebuild, replace, revive, reinstate, re-establish," from re- ("again”) and statuere (“to set up”) from PIE root stā (“to stand”).

In the first instance the word, therefore indicated the action of taking something back to its original state. One has therefore got to know what that state really was in the past, as in history,before restitution can begin.

It, however, also developed a legal content and the legal section of  The Free Dictionary by Farlex tells us that, amongst other, “in the context of Criminal Law, state programs under which an offender is required, as a condition of his or her sentence, to repay money or donate services to the victim or society.”

The formal definition of restoration, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, then is: “an act of restoring or a condition of being restored: such as a:  a) restoration of something to its rightful owner and, b) a making good for or giving an equivalent for some injury.” Then is can also be “a legal action serving to cause restoration of a previous state.”

What is true history

Some of the most vocal voices in the land restitution debate in South Africa seems to be stuck in the spirit of a false, folklore type of etymology for the word history, claiming it derives from a merger of the words his and story.

This explanation of the origin of the word, however, is not correct. History migrated to Middle English (ME) from the Greek word historia, (which had no gender attached to it) meaning "finding out, narrative, and story," via Latin and Old French.

It showed up in ME as historie, istorie, estorie and histoire, all used for any narrative account, from a formal chronicle to plain romantic stories. During the 16th century in Early Modern English different spellings for different types of narratives developed and settled down in history for factual accounts and story for fiction.

History of the land

In the present land restitution debate it is often forgotten, or maybe just ignored, that the original “lions“ of the land were the Khoi and San people and that not all the “hunters” were white.

Most of the black ethnic/cultural groups, or tribe if you want, went through a time in their history that was marked by conquering/colonising conflict between competing groups. In fact, the Nkandla area where President Jacob Zuma’s own private palace-like private residence is situated, is on land that came to his family as reward for participating in one of those conflicts. And, in that case, on the side of the white “hunters.”

Final word

Maybe the time has come that we all abandon the “his-story-approach,” and make a fresh start to create a history of our own in which the land truly belongs to all that live in it.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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