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BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

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

Could Mandela have missed out on the political debates that were issuing out of the Bhunga in his home town of Umtata?

Answers to these questions will be found only after we have broken with the tradition to modernity epistemic framework, and only after black scholars and researchers have dug into the archives where this evidence exists in abundance.

What makes the trivialisation of the black experience under apartheid possible is that the evidence upon which the claims we make are based was destroyed, in addition to the re-writing of the historical script.Much of the documentation that would have implicated senior political leaders of the apartheid government was destroyed.

And thus the much celebrated Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was based as much on remembering as it was on wilful forgetting. And, it might be added, the forgetting was assisted, for example, by the disappearance of 34 archive boxes and two folders of documents from the TRC archive, some of which referred to the 1988 murder in Paris of Dulcie September, the ANC’s representative in France.

To be sure, a certain forgetting is necessary in the making of nation. But that forgetting is not an attempt at erasure, but a holding at bay the truths we know would derail the processes of nation building.

But this does not to justify the loss of any more evidence of the past – such as took place in South Africa prior to the introduction of the democratic dispensation when, it is reliably recorded, tons of apartheid-era documents were purposely destroyed, because what was held at bay might have been brought into the realm of remembering as nations become mature. But erasure makes even such improvised remembering impossible and instead brings about a blurring of what truth and fiction, and self-doubt and self-hatred on the part of victims.

Interestingly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission performed this process of forgetting – even as it claimed it was not forgetting. It was a strategic holding at bay of truths that the negotiators of our democracy knew could break the country. It played an important role in suggesting to black people that some form of forgetting about the past was necessary if we were going to move on and function as a country.

Certain fictions were accepted such as the one that divided political and criminal actions. This fiction was a Faustian bargain that the real big fish would be spared prosecution and the smaller but no less evil fish would be sacrificed.

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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