Oct 24

Preserving the Healing Balm of History

Yesterday, I was privileged to spend a memorable morning in the company of Rear Admiral Arne Soderlund (SAN retired) at his unique museum. The recipient of three military decorations, Admiral Soderlund is an unusual combination of tough salty sea dog, archivist, historian and author. The tour of his museum presents one with a potpourri of South African history, Africana, militaria and global curiosity. As an amateur historian, I can’t recall seeing so much diversity concentrated into one space in any museum I have visited globally.

To term the collection eclectic is an understatement. Medals, guns, flags, uniforms, dolls, cameras and Victorian bedpans and underwear are all on display. But among the particular gems that caught my attention are an exploratory book on Africa dating from the 1500’s and personal correspondence between Field Marshal Jan Smuts and Field Marshal Montgomery of ‘Desert Rats’ fame. The Admiral’s personal collection of medals is literally unique and catalogued as such. Believe it or not, the Engine Order Telegraph of the first minesweeper leading the D-Day landing flotilla with the order ‘make smoke’ is proudly displayed among the glittering array of naval historical artefacts.

But this was no passive tour. Each element of the collection is peppered with questions from the Admiral as to the origin and purpose of the artefact. I and my (ex-Royal Naval) colleague, Tim Hughes, scored about two out of a hundred on the tour but emerged immeasurably better informed.

But in addition to enjoying a couple of hours out of the office and being temporarily transported back in time, I was left with a far more profound impression and conclusion regarding the importance of preserving history, particularly in the context of South Africa. The Admiral himself constitutes an entire chapter of South Africa’s history. Steeped in South African naval history and tradition, he commanded vessels that were critical to conducting clandestine operations of the infamous reconnaissance units during the border wars in the 70s, 80s and 90s. His museum holds collections of Nazi memorabilia, together with Israeli uniforms, Russian weaponry, Anglo-Boer war artefacts and then, there it is, an entire display of material housing the last remaining ANC flag from the 1955 Congress of the People.

As the Admiral reminds us, “This is where the Freedom Charter was written and adopted at Kliptown, which now forms the basis of our constitution.” The reverence in his words is genuine and the sense of pride is real. We are in the company of a remarkable man who spent a chunk of his distinguished career dutifully ‘protecting’ the country from communists and the ANC, who then served loyally under a democratic government run by the ANC and their communist allies.

While deeply concerned about the budgetary constraints limiting the seaworthiness of South Africa’s fleet, the Admiral speaks with genuine pride about the skill and seacraft of a new generation of naval leadership. His current project is to see the SAN submarine Assegaai fully restored. “Why?”, I ask. “Because submarines are the most technologically complex machines on the planet and we need to get far more of our young people involved in science, technology and engineering. Our objective is to preserve Assegaai as a technological museum that will inspire our kids to achieve excellence.”

So, here’s a message to the politically correct wokeists who seek to erase the more uncomfortable chapters of our history by pulling down and defacing statues and artefacts that they find offensive: study history, embrace history, learn from history and then, make your own history!