I’m sure that there will be a fancy word for it, but when our attention becomes invested in something, we often find that topic suddenly cropping up all over the place. I am about to go to South Africa and am becoming more and more aware of how entwined our histories have been. Not, I should add, by any sense of choice for the majority population of South Africa. On Friday afternoon, standing on a platform at Derby station, I suddenly noticed the plaque that heads this blog. A memorial with scores of names of the members of the Midland Railway Company’s staff who died ‘serving their country in the war in South Africa 1899-1902’.
The war was conducted, partly under the direction of lieutenant-general Kitchener, in a manner that was both new and terrifying. It gave to the world the concept of ‘Total War’, in which civilians were as much embroiled and harmed as combatants. It also saw the introduction of the kind of contained and controlled camps used to subjugate entire populations.
“This Total War strategy shattered the rural economy, leading to starvation and a humanitarian crisis. Displaced and captured civilians were taken to military managed refugee camps inside the military controlled zones. These camps became known first as refugee camps and then later as concentration camps and were established near towns, mines and railways sidings”.Benneyworth, G. C. (2019). Traces and memory of African forced labour camps during the South African War (1899–1902). Traces, mémoires et mutations des camps de refugies. Investigations d’anthropologie prospective, 29-49.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority British perception of modern history begins in 1914. To stray back just a few years earlier, and look farther afield, brings a far less comfortable story of national conduct. Plaques like the memorial at Derby station are less common than those in memory of WWI and WWII, but they are more numerous than we might imagine.
“people conduct their daily affairs under the shadow of their own inevitable ignorance. People simply do not know everything about everything”.Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 247-296). Academic Press.
Dunning is right that ignorance is a fact of life. We make choices about the things we wish to understand, while simultaneously recognising that in some cases we are ignorant of our ignorance. However, there are also topics about which we make a decision – at some level – to avert our eyes. To avoid things too dangerous for our implicit sense of how the world works, and our place within it. This is when prophets discomfort our security and demand that we see the truth of difficult things. They ‘scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ – something the proud will do anything to avoid. We are all proud.
I am looking forward to our time in South Africa, and to reunions with people we have met on their visits to the UK. Despite the histories of oppression and privilege, and the legacy of damage that is wired into the inequalities of society, human beings are not inevitably condemned to repeat the past. We should never be ignorant of what has made us who we are – or forgetful of how wealth is built on the misery of people we have othered. Thankfully, with great generosity and grace, I know that we are all interested in the future – and how the friendships and knowledge we share can lead to something more worthy, godly, life-giving and hopeful.