Hero worship leads to a revision of our history

By Hein Gerwel.

Hein Gerwel

One of the most iconic images in the popular imagination of the broad ‘left’ must be that of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara emblazoned on t-shirts and posters; fiercely commercialised and ‘mainstreamed’. The late Fidel Castro asked for this to not be the destiny of his image. My father had a similar perceived bashfulness about adulted glorification of his role in social change and the establishment of a ‘non-racial democracy’.

Cricket, which seems to have become my go-to social metaphor, informs these musings. This coming weekend sees the third instalment of the ‘Gerwel Family T20 Tournament’, hosted by UWC Cricket Club. As a former member of Tygerberg Cricket Club, I receive communication via a WhatsApp group regarding fixtures and the like. The latest installment announced the playing of the “Jakes Grewel” [sic.] tournament.

This got me thinking about how the recognition of a family, can be reduced to that of its most famous son. Jakes was one of ten children of John and Sarah Gerwel, farmworkers and sharecroppers in what is now the Eastern Cape.  My grandparents started a farm school, which educated all their offspring, as well as numerous other children of rural families that would have been denied this opportunity under the previous politico-ideological dispensation. We have now entered the seventh generation of Gerwels who hail from the same general region.

Jakes was, and still is, a member of a social collective. My one uncle was the first black lithographer in South Africa, a momentous achievement in an industry that was actively excluding people of colour from certain levels of employment. His daughters are also the first of my generation to achieve PhDs, from NMU and UKZN respectively. Another of our cousins holds three Masters Degrees from the three traditional Cape Town universities. But, I am belabouring the point.

If we want to maintain the integrity of historiographies through narratives, let us not forget that people like Ashley Kriel, Bradley Barrows, Basil Snayer, Keith Powell, and numerous other revolutionaries are not acknowledged for the furtive and substantive role they played, jointly with the more publically recognised luminaries of our liberation, in fomenting and facilitating social transformation in our country, continent and world.

I thus ask of the organisers of the ‘Gerwel Family T20 Tournament’ to reflect on history, not only as what is brandished as exceptional in popular cultural circles, but also as the day-to-day and mundane business of bringing about change through the personal transformation of life-long learning and a critical and emancipatory education. I use the term social collective as opposed to family, because my conceptualization of what family encompasses is broader than the biologically centered blood relations implied through a Eurocentric and liberal (in its Humean interpretation) social ontology or ‘weltanschauung’.  The time has come for us as a sentient, reflexive species to reclaim our ability to look past the atomistic views of social organisation. It is up to us to rethink our views on what is, and what is possible, for our combined realities on the planet. Since heroes seem to be in short supply, perhaps the onus is on us normal individuals to be more heroic.