Why Your Students Should Write Their Own Histories

A review of White Fear: Overcoming the Impossible to Get Ahead by Don MacRobert.

The first thing I heard about White Fear was ‘Don MacRobert has written a book!’ MacRobert is a South African patent and intellectual property lawyer, and the founding chair of Lawyers for Human Rights. He has worked in various capacities with all four of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, namely Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President F.W. de Klerk, President Nelson Mandela and Dr Albert Luthuli.

Even this small biographical snippet tells you right away that this man’s story must be fascinating, and indeed it is. Before I give you a more detailed ‘sneak peek,’ let me explain why this account should be in every school library.

I believe that every well-organised school library ought to have an autobiography section. That’s where your students will read the self-penned tales of heroes – ranging from athletes to prisoners of war – from days gone by. Then it’s you chance to get them capturing their own histories for a number of important reasons.

Writer Katie Sewell puts it like this:

The purpose of an autobiography is to give you a first-hand account of the life of the person you are reading about, and to give you a better insight into how their experiences have shaped them as a person.

Another author, Jill Morris, has something even more interesting to say to aspirant autobiography writers:

Firstly, write your story for yourself. By writing the stories from your life, you help yourself form a clearer understanding of who you are and how you got to where you are. You learn about yourself, and often bring closure to issues. Treat yourself to the experience.

Secondly, leave a legacy for family and friends. In today’s fast-paced world, there is never enough time to sit down with family and tell them about your childhood, career or romances. Your written life story can give them a book about who you are and where you came from.

Thirdly, write to capture your experience of the history of your time. Preserve those stories by writing about them.

MacRobert has done all these things. He’s supplied future generations with a clear picture of South Africa during a very bleak period – apartheid. He’s also touched on an extremely crucial point. When he titles his work White Fear, he’s urging readers to look inside the book and find out which or what white, and what fear?

Spoiler alert! Between the covers you will not discover the story of someone who bought into the apartheid government propaganda, and tucked themselves away into a leafy bourgeois corner, or the story of black people afraid of a persistent white man who appeared in Soweto with what may initially have seemed to be pie-in the-sky notions to the folk who lived there. You will find the story of a humble entrepreneur who went into the townships and formed lasting relationships with people who knew they could count on him. The rest is history.

White Fear by Don MacRobertIn his modest style, MacRobert says of his work:

Thank you for choosing to read this book.

To explain the title, White Fear – when I first ventured into Soweto, I was worried about working there … there was a great deal of fear surrounding my work … it was our collective fear of the power of South Africa’s government, and the apparatus it used to force draconian laws onto the population.

So what exactly was MacRobert up to during those troubled times? After practising as an intellectual property lawyer, he helped set up the Get Ahead Foundation, where he served as a director for 15 years.

Together with the likes of community leaders such as Dr Nthato Motlana, President Mandela’s physician; Archbishop Tutu; and Dikgang Moseneke, later the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, [the foundation] uplifted impoverished and oppressed communities in Soweto and other townships. Through its microcredit programme and training initiatives, Get Ahead generated jobs for thousands of people in the informal sector – mainly women – and by 1999, it had created 40 000 job opportunities.

For me, the greatest things about MacRobert’s book are his humble style, and his ability to capture the atmosphere of the times he writes about. This book demands to be read aloud, so that students can first imagine, and then discuss, what life was like before democracy came to South Africa. Let me give you two examples. The first is from the very start of White Fear.

‘You are mad!’

These were the words of a Sowetan himself, Dudley Mekgoe, when he welcomed me to Soweto on my first day.

‘You must be afraid!’ he cautioned. ‘Soweto was created out of the worst forms of social engineering that history has ever seen. Soweto is illegitimate – it is a bastard. It has generated hatred and fear,’ Dudley carried on, without pausing.

The second extract describes Soweto during apartheid:

After returning home from school, [children] would have to light up the coal stove fires. From four in the afternoon, Soweto’s small matchbox houses would start spewing smoke from their chimneys.

If the wind was not blowing the smoke away, it would accumulate into dense smog that would settle over the township. The whole area of Soweto would become enveloped. Everyone was therefore happier when the wind blew in the ‘right’ direction. But the wind had to blow quite strongly in Soweto. This is because there are no trees in Soweto. Living cheek by jowl, with the houses so close to each other, there was never any space for trees to grow in gardens. In any event, these houses belonged to the government. They were … never owned by their occupants, so why worry about trees?

Let me end with one of my favourite pieces of advice. Please buy this book for all the people who teach and learn in your school. Let it become part of a cross curricular, collaborative pedagogical approach. And, let everyone who reads it, embark on writing their own stories about the curious world in which we find ourselves living today.