Who has the last word on our past?

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History is written by all those who have the resources to tell their version, writes Gary Baines.

THE "battle-centric" view of history holds that key military engagements have had a significant impact on broader socio-political, economic and cultural developments. Its rationale is that history turns on a series of pivotal moments on the battlefield that impact on all spheres of society. This well-established tradition of military history has left an indelible mark on writing about wars and their consequences.

The approach is still fashionable among historians (and their, mainly lay, readers) and is exemplified by texts such as Greg Mills and David Williams's Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa (2006).

Included in their selection is Cuito Cuanavale (1987-88), a battle that has attracted considerable attention and controversy. But why is this so?

For one thing, commentators do not necessarily agree that there was a battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

Indeed, some reckon it is a misnomer to speak of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale as there was no battle for the remote town in Angola's Cuanda-Cubango province.

Nor would they regard their preference for terms such as the siege of Cuito Cuanavale as mere semantics.

On the other hand, there are those who stress that Cuito was the biggest conventional operation on African soil since World War II, and have dubbed it "the war for Africa".

Fidel Castro, with his flair for rhetorical bombast and self-promotion, boasted that the history of Africa-would be written "before and after Cuito Cuanavale" (BCC/ ACC?) Then there are those who regard it as a turning point in the fight against racist imperialists and have likened it to the battle of Stalingrad, and those who have hailed Cuito as "the battle which put an end to apartheid".

No matter the perspective, there appears to be consensus that the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a watershed event. This is because commentators of all perspectives have embraced the "battle-centric" view of history with its tendency to emphasise the significance of a military engagement which was arguably a sideshow to the political drama that played out here.

Equally remarkable is that all parties are intent on asserting that they were victors at Cuito Cuanavale thereby claiming ownership of the (hi)story.

The adage that history is written by the victors is uncertain. The underlying assumption seems to be that the victors (re)construct the past from the vantage point of being vindicated by history.

The vanquished, conversely, are thought to have been disavowed by history. In other words, the winners secure the rights to the (hi)story, while the losers forfeit their claim. However, the issue of who gets to (re)write history is more complicated than the adage would suggest.

First, wars do not always end with obvious victors. Conflict can end in stalemate, followed by a negotiated settlement and (relatively) peaceful transfer of power from the old to the new order, as was the case here and in Namibia.

The settlement hammered out in the capitals of the world between the governments of South Africa, Angola and Cuba under US tutelage signified that all parties had foresworn a military option in favour of a diplomatic one for Namibia.

Likewise, when the SADF and MK entered into a military pact behind the scenes during the course of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations, these organisations committed themselves to a peaceful resolution of the country's civil war. There were no obvious winners and losers. Indeed, the evidence would seem to suggest that most contemporary transitions to democracy do not have clear winners and losers.

Second, it is not true to say that only victors write history. Both winners and losers do so. The adage assumes that the victors of a social struggle or conflict use their political dominance to suppress a defeated adversary's version of historical events in favour of their own.

But is this so? How are the new rulers of a post-conflict society able to impose their version of events?

With the reduction of centralised powers in modern democracies, including the privatisation of the educational system and the mass media, how is the state able to propagate a master narrative or produce an "official history" that goes unchallenged?

Our case study has shown that narratives of Cuito Cuanavale propagated by apparent victors and vanquished compete for attention.

Third, wars do not produce only winners and losers but victims as well. Indeed, nowadays there is an unseemly rivalry to attain victim status in post-conflict societies.

The TRC promoted victimhood in what proved to be a landmark experiment in transitional justice. Victimhood has political capital in a world in which the discourse of human rights has almost become an article of faith.

Fourth, the adage takes no account of the distribution of resources, especially access to the media, in modern (post-)literate societies. Erik Christiansen's study of the politicising of history in postwar America provides instructive case studies of the interplay between history and power relations.

He holds that history is constantly remade to suit the objectives of those with the resources to do so.

Social media archive and transmit revisionist versions of the past; they are carriers of counter-memories. Elite communities are able through the (old and new) media to disseminate their interpretations of the past to a relatively large audience. SADF veterans certainly use the internet to publicise their version of the Cuito Cuanavale story.

Thus victors do not necessarily create and monopolise the collective memory of past events.

Nor are they able to prevent counter-memories from gaining a hold.

Fifth, history in the sense of being a record of the past is not an impartial arbiter of human conduct. It is historians rather than history that make judgements. And historians are a product of their times.

They have served as handmaidens of nationalism, proponents of political ideologies and parties, or apologists for particular causes. Historians have displayed partisanship and have been known to take "sides".

While the public might like to think that historians are capable of objectivity, it remains a chimera. If postmodernism is the death knell of history for positivists or a challenge to constructivists, for a public largely ignorant of developments in the discipline of history the absence of certainty is confusing.

Traditionally, societies have hierarchies of knowledge according to which the perspectives of the literate held sway over those of the unlettered, and those of academic historians trump their amateur counterparts.

However, these hierarchies are being unsettled in the postmodern world in which virtually every person can become a historian. With the "democratisation of history", the authority of the historian is being challenged by all comers.

And in the public sphere, history is used and abused by pundits, polemicists and political elites.

Historical narratives have provided ammunition for parties involved in the "war of words" for Cuito Cuanavale. Such history wars or memory battles suggest that protagonists often have a vested interest in their versions of the past that they are prepared to defend.

The literature on Cuito Cuanavale shares a deficiency of most military history, namely, that it fixates on the battle set piece; that it is "battle centric". By assigning the labels "victor" and vanquished" to the warring parties, it reduces a complex situation to a simple, coherent narrative.

This mode of thinking seems to be so compelling for SADF vindicationists that they make battles the focal point in a conflict that does not readily lend itself to such an interpretation of history.

And by concentrating on Angola's south-eastern front they deflect attention away from the more critical developments in the south-west of the country. Conversely, ANC apologists reckon that the momentum provided by the defeat of the SADF at Cuito, and MK's (mythical) contribution to that defeat, set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the dismantling of white power and privilege.

For diametrically opposite reasons, both overstate the significance of Cuito Cuanavale, and attach too much rhetorical weight to it.

Although accepted as a truism, the adage that history is written by victors happens to be mistaken, obsolete or, at the very least, a gross simplification.

It is far from inevitable that victors will have the last word in how South Africa's past is remembered partly because it is not exactly clear who they were or who has the power and resources to prevail in the dissemination of narratives and counter-narratives. "Official" histories might become hegemonic but they are always contested.

The revision of history happens at the interface of memory, politics and historiography. The memory battles in respect of the "Border War" involve victors, vanquished and vindicationists in ongoing contestation. These roleplayers are competing for high stakes: whose version of the past is commemorated and institutionalised.

Baines is an associate professor of history at Rhodes University. This is an edited extract from South Africa's Border War: Contested Narratives and Conflicting Memories (Bloomsbury).