I think I’m angry with my ancestors
This piece is in part a response to a discussion held by a sub-group of the Research Initiative in Archive and Public Culture last year, which Nick Shepherd has captured:, and to Becoming Worthy Ancestors, which Busi Mnguni has reviewed: . It also picks up on Velaphi kaLuphuzi Mkhize’s discussion of ancestors: I have been wondering more and more since that discussion what to think of my ancestors. I’ve even been wondering who my ancestors are. It seems to me we assume to know what or who we are referring to when we say ancestors. I’m no longer sure I do.
Sure, many families invoke abaphansi, amathongo, izinyanya or amadlozi (Mkhize). Here it seems clear that they are talking specifically about their genealogical forebears. But are they? When a family is conducting an ancestral ceremony and uses its izithakazelo or iziduko, who is being invoked? Surely it’s not just its genealogy alone since the core of praises is used by every other family with the surname.
I’ve come to think of my ancestors as all the people from whom I’ve inherited something. Some of them I know and can invoke and others I don’t know and can say nothing to or about. It’ll become clearer shortly who all these ancestors are.
I’ve inherited many things from many different people. These are the people who came before me and paved the way for me to be where I am. They are the people who moved and settled in certain places so that I came to be born where I was. These are the ancestors I trace my existence through, the ones I would put on the family tree. The ones in my direct line of descent are also the ones I would have inherited more useful worldly things like cattle, land, money and houses from if they had had any to pass down to the next generations. But they didn’t leave me anything; they didn’t have anything to leave. And that’s my first point of anger. There you have it: I’m angry with my ancestors because they didn’t leave me any money. It’s all about money, you see, so I’ve to begin at the beginning and work my way up in the world. No leg up there. Thanks, dear ancestors. But I understand: it has been a harsh world to these ancestors for the last 200 years because of these other people I am now going to claim as ancestors. I’m going to come back to the real reasons I think I’m angry with these ancestors.
Let me turn to the other ancestors. You see, there are these other people I’ve inherited things from that I’ve disavowed as ancestors all along. I work in a university that was founded by Cecil John Rhodes. Sure, he and people of his ilk are not my heroes, to say the least. Nonetheless I’ve inherited things from them, useful ones at that, that I and those of my time and those of times to come can put to our own use. I am angry with this class of ancestor for reasons to do with how they made the first ones not leave any money and such. I can count many other ancestors - such as the ones from whom I’ve inherited ideas - but the two sets I’ve covered will do for saying why I’m angry.
So why am I angry? I am angry with some in the first set of ancestors because they failed me. Specifically, it is those who lived in the 19th century I think about most often. I am angry with them because they were defeated, first by the Zulu and then by a succession of European settlers and their descendants. They left a legacy of shame and humiliation that I must now work through. The Buthelezi were defeated by the Zulu. Then, under the Zulu, they were defeated by the British and the Afrikaners. I know why they were defeated. They did not have the weapons, the ideological machinery or the financial systems to hold their ground against this series of invaders. But that does not make me not angry; in fact it makes me all the angrier. Why hadn’t they developed weapons and military strategies by the time they were invades? Why were they not the conquerors? (And I’m not advocating conquest here. I’m merely saying this is the way the world was by the nineteenth century. They didn’t know, so they sat around until they got overrun by the ambitious, greedy and downright foolish. That was nice of them.) Many people who have ancestors who were defeated like mine and put under the heel of others have tried to find something to be proud of about these ancestors, a glimmer of heroism to hold on to. Perhaps mere survival through 200 years of being under the heel of others is indeed heroic.
I am also angry with my European ancestors, the invaders who forced themselves into the story of my past. I am angry with them because they should have stayed home, as Jamaica Kincaid has put it. I could say with Kincaid to these ancestors: “You murdered people. You imprisoned people. You robbed people. You opened your own banks and you put our money in them. The accounts were in your name. The banks were in your name. There must have been some good people among you, but they stayed home. And that is the point. That is why they are good. They stayed home” (A Small Place, p. 35). If the greedy ones had stayed home then I wouldn’t be in this predicament nor would their genealogical descendants have to reckon with their ancestors’ greed and shameful plunder of other people’s land. But they came, they went all over the world, and so we have to live with their legacies. They are the ones who robbed my other ancestors and contributed to my shame and anger. I can’t believe I am admitting to this shame, but perhaps it’s time I and many others did.
Am I allowed to be angry with my ancestors? They can be angry with us and we have to shweleza (ritually apologize). What happens when we are the angry ones? How do we make them apologise to us? I don’t know. Perhaps some will tell me that I’ll bring the wrath of the ancestors down on myself by saying the things I’ve said here. What do you think, dear reader?
Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Archival Platform’s Ancestral Stories Coordinator.