“Your vision must be stronger than your memory”

This expression, according to Dr Nick Binedell, the founder of GIBS in Johannesburg, is a mantra that will lead any individual, organization, institution or country to a better future.

It resonates well with the Biblical expression: “Where there is no vision, the people perish (or parish!)”. (Proverbs 29:18)

But how does it resonate with the expression from Archbishop Tutu: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”? We should desire to learn from history so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our individual and collective histories.

It is clear that history cannot simply be forgotten. Amnesia is not an option. But in faithfully learning about history from many different perspectives, how does one ensure that it does not consume you, imprison you or make you bitter and cynical? Can a knowledge of history liberate us?

Learning history from different perspectives

Part of the answer lies in learning from many different perspectives. If one learns about history only as it is told by the victor, then the very crucial and critical perspective of the victim is lost. For South Africans, it is important to learn about apartheid and colonialism, but it also important to learn about what was previously called “the Anglo-Boer War”. Not understanding how the British treated the Afrikaners would mean that a major motivation for the rise of the National Party would be lost. Not knowing about colonialism would mean that one cannot really understand apartheid. The words of Emily Hobhouse, the Englishwoman who nursed the Boer wounded, at the inauguration of the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein, still resound: Do not do unto others what has been done to you. Was that lesson heeded in 1948? And what does that bit of history now tell us about how we should live post 1994, and right now, in the second decade of the 21st century?

Similarly, it is important to understand global history (e.g. the fall of the Berlin Wall) to understand and appreciate fully the fall of apartheid in South Africa.


It is also important to learn and understand the meaning of some big words, such as ‘hegemony’. Without understanding what a word such as ‘hegemony’ means, one will only have a basic understanding of history.

The retrieval of suppressed history in South Africa

History is still being retrieved in South Africa. How many people know about the significant contribution of someone such as Advocate Benny Kies who died in the Hermanus Court? His writings on non-racialism are basic to the understanding of that term in South Africa. They remain to be retrieved and aired.

South African Church history also needs to retrieve some crucial information. When the Dutch Reformed Church ensured that the first Moravian missionaries in South Africa returned to Germany, a woman called Vehettge (baptized as Magdalena) continued the missionary work in Genadendal. How many Christians in South Africa even know her name, let alone the important work she did?

The project of retrieving lost history is important for the healing of South Africa to continue.

Moving from history to vision

In South Africa, the “healing of memories” has become an important part of our healing process. Once memory is brought to the surface, it is important to make sense of it, to manage it and to bring it to healing.

Can a compelling vision help to heal memories? South Africa has some experience of this. We adopted a new constitution in 1996 to move South Africa from a highly racialized society with macho overtones to a non-racial and non-sexist society. Having leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to point the way towards that vision and to begin the healing and reconstruction process, was key. But it is clear that individual leaders are not enough to sustain a vision.

Institution-building and values

A time arrives, and has arrived in South Africa, when powerful individuals cannot sustain the vision and when that vision gets challenged, for whatever reason. It is important that strong institutions are built or re-built that will sustain the vision for a long time. Old institutions, however good they once were, sometimes have to die in order for new institutions and processes to grow.

New values must be determined that will drive the vision of those new institutions. In Africa, the value of non-sexism would be an important driver to move us away from old, big man politics and churchmanship. Those who benefited from the old system and old institutions will fight back, and therefore it is important that these values be taught and practised even at school level and in our homes. We need to find ways to solidify these values, sustain these institutions and build the new beloved community that so many of us long for.

Written by Edwin Arrison

20 February 2021

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