BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

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

There are myriad other ways in which the ANC has distorted the archive. Even as it has reduced the narrative to that of its own achievements and Nelson Mandela, it has failed to sponsor any scholarship around Mandela. As we speak there is not a single book on Nelson Mandela by a black South African over the past 25 years of his freedom.

The governing party has done virtually nothing to promote scholarship around its own leaders – Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Griffiths and Veronica Mxenge –  let alone those it has erased from public memory – Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and others. Without such cultural history our children roll their eyes when we tell them about the past. “There you go, exaggerating,” they say, “it wasn’t that bad.”

Like Chacko’s twins in Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things: “they were [are] all pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had [have] been swept away.”

And of course the grosser the experiences you recount, the more ridiculous you become, until you get to a point where you begin to doubt your own truth. That is why you need the second conception of the archive that Hamilton describes – which is the body of documents and other materials that serve as evidence of the past.

As I write this I am coming from a screening of Abby Ginzberg’s film about Albie Sachs, Soft Vengeance. It is the kind of documentary evidence that our children ought to see but will not see because of block-buster movies such as Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, which uproots Mandela from the historical context of the struggle.

I still have to read a biography that foregrounds the political modernity of the black world that shaped Nelson Mandela. Almost without exception it’s a common narrative that he came out of the traditional Transkei to learn politics from the modern environment of Johannesburg.

If what was happening in the Eastern Cape in the late 19th century was not modernity, I do not know what is. In fact, the modernist political discourses of the Eastern Cape in many ways rank alongside the debates that were taking place in major cities around the world.

Those debates took place on the radio, in newspapers and in public debates about how best to respond to colonial modernity – whether to reject it or be part of it. Is it really possible that Mandela was unaffected by the political debates that were heating up in the area, particularly in his regional home of Tembuland?

In her biography of Sidney Bunting, Allison Drew describes Tembuland as “the epicentre of politics in the Eastern Cape”, if not in South Africa. Could Bunting’s historic election campaign in 1929 have been lost on an 11-year-old Mandela?

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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