BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa
  • PublishedOctober 14, 2014

As a Nobel Laureate he should have known there was nothing equal about the homelands and the unequal educational system over which his party presided for decades. During apartheid, teacher-student ratios were an average of 1:18 in white schools while they were 1:39 for blacks schools. It was 1:45 in my last year of high school! 

This is all perhaps not surprising coming from the man who sought to curtail my rights to enter a white university when he was Minister of Education.It is indeed a small step from De Klerk’s trivialisation of the black experience under apartheid to current efforts to banish race from admissions policies at our formerly – and still predominantly – white universities.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), black African students constitute less than a quarter of the student population, and there are only five full professors out of a total of more than 200 professors and 1,400 academics.

There is not a single black African woman who is a full professor. And when you raise this as a problem, your white colleagues, like the film-maker from Algeria, tell you to stop obsessing about race. Such is the sense of white entitlement in South Africa that those who make such arguments do not stop to think about the systematic exclusion of black students from the universities by the die that history has cast against them and their continued alienation once they enter those institutions.

Despite arguments for a displacement of race by economic disadvantage, race remains an embodied, psychological experience for these black students, at least according to recent studies by some of UCT’s staff.

This downplaying of race is possible because those with cultural power are able to lay out the terms of the debate. They do this because that cultural power is based on a powerful but distorted archive. In my book, Becoming Worthy Ancestors, my colleague Carolyn Hamilton speaks about two ways of thinking about the archive.

The first is the archive as the political and epistemological framing of the past. This is the re-framing that takes place when someone says you are exaggerating when you are talking about the brutalities of the past. The methods that are employed are not as obvious as they would be if they were those of a totalitarian government.

They happen through the way cultural institutions such as the media and universities themselves sharpen the public discourse, precisely because they are regarded as sources of authority. And if you do not have any significant presence in these sources of authority then you are hobbled from the start in presenting your own archive as the basis of our collective memory.

Those with the power to define the archive will take your memory and redefine it for you. That is why Milan Kundera famously suggested, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

The ANC and its government has been complicit in these processes of erasure

I should add that the ANC and its government has been complicit in these processes of erasure. During the course of the debate about black representation at the University of Cape Town, it was none other than the Treasurer-General of the ANC, Zweli Mkhize, who foolishly waded into the debate to question my assertion that with less than a quarter of the student population South African, black students were under-represented at the university.

This he did by tampering with the archive – by providing an expanded definition of blackness that includes Coloureds, Indians, and foreign students he was able to get at a magical figure of almost 50%.

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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