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BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

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BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

The South Africa experience with archives has its differences with other African countries, but also its similarities. Just as the colonialists in Africa sought to destroy, lose or deny the existence of archives, so too have successive South African governments acted against the public’s right to know the truth, writes Xolela Mangcu.

In August I participated in a conference organised by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin to mark 20 years of South Africa’s democracy. As often happens with these events, citizens of a country often find they are much closer to each other when they are in a foreign land. I must confess though that I often find the sudden closeness quite affected.

And so I find ways to escape to my hotel room. I thought I had done so successfully but my fellow South Africans caught up with me at a restaurant. I was caught in a lie. I had said I was tired and going to bed, and here I was gorging myself.

Anyway I made the best of the situation. There were two people in the group that I really liked. The one I did not hit it off well with was announced as a film-maker from Algeria, who said she was just tired of South Africans marking themselves out as special and different from everybody else on the continent for their racial oppression.

Citizens of other African countries are not as obsessed with race as you South Africans are, she thundered. She said Zambia had a cabinet minister that no one referred to as white even though he was, well, white. Others had been oppressed too, you know – Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia and the list went on and on.

I was not exactly sure where this was coming from or going to but it was showing no sign of coming to an end. I could feel anger well inside me but with age I have developed incredible self-control. Shortly thereafter I took leave of the group to commiserate by myself in my hotel room.

Maybe that is why I prefer my own company on such occasions, I said, as I consoled myself to sleep like a little child. The following morning I woke up feeling a little better. I realised it was not really the film-maker’s argument that had upset me so much. What this person was saying was an echo of what white South Africans were increasingly saying about the black experience under apartheid – nothing special.

In an interview with CNN’s Christian Amanpour, South Africa’s last white president, F.W. De Klerk, had said that “In as much as it trampled human rights, it [apartheid] was and remains morally indefensible”, but that the homeland system on which it was based was not repugnant because blacks in those homelands had political rights:

“They were not disenfranchised, they voted. They were not put in homelands, the homelands were historically there. If only the developed world would put so much money into Africa, which is still struggling in poverty, as we poured into those homelands. How many universities and schools were built? The goal was separate but equal, but separate but equal failed.”

De Klerk possibly could not hear how patronising he was because he had been billed as the great liberator, worthy of the same status as Nelson Mandela, at least according to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. But in defending separate but equal De Klerk was ironically confirming the absurdity of conferring such an honour on him.

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Written by Xolela Mangcu

Dr Xolela Mangcu is an internationally respected analyst and commentator and often quoted in South African media who is based at the University of Cape Town. Mangcu has written weekly columns for the Sunday Independent, Business Day and the Weekender, and is a guest analyst for the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera. He has authored and co-authored six books, the latest Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Identity and Public Deliberation in Democratic South Africa.

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