Last week I wrote about the 1913 Land Act and its counterfactual, and sent the post to several opinion-makers. While the first few days were relatively quiet, Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the opposition in the South African parliament, responded on Friday afternoon with the following tweet: “Do not send me offensive, ahistorical ‘the blacks should be grateful’ drivel masquerading as analysis. I am not that person.”

I guess that warrants a response, although to be honest, I’m still a bit flabbergasted by Ms Mazibuko’s knee-jerk reaction. Like most authors who receive critical referee reports, I gave it some time. I reread the post. I got second opinions. I reread the post again. And in the end I decided not to respond directly to her. Perhaps I should’ve been clear that I don’t make any policy recommendations. Perhaps I should’ve emphasised that this is a thought experiment: that I don’t wish to make judgments on what should have been, but rather, what might have been. So let me be absolutely clear: I don’t believe ‘blacks should be grateful’ and I do not advocate such a view in my post.

In preparation for my first graduate Economic History class this morning, though, I was forced to think about who writes economic history in South Africa, and why we do so. Reading Barry Eichengreen’s excellent contribution on how our understanding of the causes and consequences of the Great Depression influenced US policy-making during the recent Great Recession, I wonder whether we will learn similar lessons from our own history. South Africa has a disfigured history, and the period of oppression of the majority by the minority is still fresh in our collective memory. Which means we tend to not want to talk about it. Or, worse, we tend to cluster everything before 1994 in the ‘evil box’, with the insinuation that nothing that happened in South Africa before the democratic elections can be useful for understanding and improving our country today.

We  need leaders that can engage critically with our past, and more so if our past is one of suffering, discrimination and inequality. As Eichengreen notes, knowledge of the past is especially helpful in times of crisis. Ben Bernanke’s research on the Great Depression allowed the Federal Reserve to react quickly to the recent financial crisis. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for a popular history of the Senate and could fall back on his knowledge of the events of Pearl Harbor when faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But more broadly, a remembered history – even if it is tainted (whose history isn’t?) – also reinforces the principles of democracy that many had fought for. As Ms Mazibuko would acknowledge herself, past practices are increasingly popular with the current generation of politicians and bureaucrats. If we ignore the past how will we recognize déjà vu?
Let’s debate the past, even if we don’t agree with what happened, how it happened and why it happened. Let’s tolerate alternative opinions because we might be wrong. The most discouraging aspect of this exchange with Ms Mazibuko is her rejection of this basic liberal tenet.