Perhaps it was because of the combination of the two recent holidays, the 1st July celebration of the birth of Sir Seretse Khama and then the 20th, Presidents Day, which made me think about it.
Or perhaps it was a recent e mail from an émigré friend in the US which she ended with that famous, familiar quote of Seretse’s,
“A Nation without a Past is a lost Nation, a People without a Future is a People without Hope”. Presumably she appended those few words because they resonate for her, and indeed for many others and because they bring some kind of comfort and sense of identity, not least for those who are abroad.
The problem with that seemingly profound, resounding statement is that its validity, for many people, is in no way reduced when its key words are transposed. In this instance, Seretse’s, ‘a people without a past is a people without a soul’ has been altered to become “a people without a future is a people without hope”. What do these comments really mean, if anything? Is it better for a people to be without a past or a future?
Or better for them to be without hope or without a soul? But then take that resonant phrase, ‘a nation without a past’ – the reference being, presumably, to this country. But was this the only one in the world in 1970 to be so remarkably handicapped? As a generality, wasn’t this tag applied to so many countries/parts of the world to help explain why they were taken over by countries that did have a history. Could that same comment have been made in respect of Lesotho, or Indonesia or Peru?
Do we today need to accept that this comment is worth further repetition? Are we unable to recognise that there are no nations or countries or parts of the world that have no history. Why therefore do we still cling to this, ‘poor old us’ dirge, the Brits did us down, they took away our (non-existent) history, told us that we were worthless nobodies and very obviously having no past were unlikely to have any soul! I apologise to those who still hold on to those few words as some sort of a patriotic mantra because I, for one, have the greatest difficulty in understanding why Seretse of all people could have made such a comment.
Was it because he took the word ‘nation’ to mean the area which came to be defined by the Protectorate – in which case it might be said that as such, it did indeed have no previous history.
Or was he perhaps referring to the Ngwato as the nation he was having in mind - which seems improbable. And then consider the latter part of that tag, the nation with no soul. Can there be such a thing?
Is there any nation in the world which, sensibly, can be described as soulless? And if so, what exactly would it mean? It may be said that this one sentence should not be made to stand alone because it needs to be understood in its full context.
This is: ‘We were taught, sometimes in a very positive way, to despise ourselves and our ways of life. We were made to believe that we had no past to speak of, no history to boast of.
The past, so far as we were concerned, was just a blank and nothing more. Only the present mattered and we had very little control over it. It seemed we were in for a definite period of foreign tutelage, without any hope of our ever again becoming our own masters. The end result of all this was that our self-pride and our self-confidence were badly undermined.
It should now be our intention to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.’ For me, the provision of that context is not of much help. It remains a depressing, somewhat bizarre and certainly uncharacteristic comment.
How could this have happened? Senior government leaders then as now, had their speeches written for them. Because of fatigue, illness or simply lack of opportunity these can be delivered without having been previously read, thought about and altered. Perhaps it sounded good to him then as it sounds good to many today. But I suggest it’s time that we let this particular comment drift far away into the non-existent past.