BHM: The power of memory against forgetting in South Africa

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

Thus Eugene de Kock’s act of killing a policeman’s wife, because she knew too much was “deemed” criminal while his act of shooting and killing Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge was deemed “political.”

The Pan Africanist Congress decision to rob banks to fund its guerilla war might be deemed criminal while the actual act of carrying out the guerilla war might be deemed political.

In other words we were telling ourselves lies. But white lies are not the same as the attempts at historical erasure of memory that are taking place right now. In the process of erasure the poor are told that they have no one to blame for their condition but themselves. “Stop blaming apartheid”, they are told, “and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” Except they do not have any bootstraps to pull upon.

Does it come as any wonder then that thousands of community protests have erupted in the townships over the past couple of years? It is also because some of the conditions in these settlements are far worse than what prevailed under apartheid that the allegations of exaggeration seem to take hold, that the historical memory is trivialised.

To quote Mac Maharaj, “To hide the horrors of the past in a collective amnesia would leave posterity with a legacy of festering guilt and unrelieved pain.” It is, as the novelist James Baldwin states: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The massacre of workers at Marikana leads to the dismissal of apartheid as just an atrocity among many others – nothing special about it. More and more, apartheid is distant memory.

To the extent that memorialisation has been done successfully it has been based on research and scholarship.

We love putting up statues, naming and renaming streets and buildings, but the hard slog of creating a new knowledge base based on the historical archive remains to be undertaken. There is perhaps no better example of this in the world than the Hutchins Center at Harvard, where I am presently a fellow.

Thanks to the remarkable work of Henry Louis Gates Jr, the research conducted by the centre is by far the biggest archive of the African and African American experience.

Twenty years after democracy we do not have a single national research institution focused on the black historical experience in the way the Goree Institute or the Smithsonian Institution does in the US. The black historical experience is now taboo in our public discourse, as those with the cultural power in the media and the universities have continued to make race an illegitimate subject of discussion. And black people find themselves politically free but culturally powerless, unable to speak about their experiences, for lack of a proper historical archive.

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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *