What a South African version of nostalgia might look like

I’m going to propose an idea at once ambitious and banal. Imagine, if you would, that a new drama series was to be flighted on South African television. The show would air during prime time on the national broadcaster’s premium channel. It would be produced in South Africa. It would have high production values. It would be set in early 1960s South Africa. Ian Roberts would not play a police officer. A faceless Black mob would not sing, hum or whistle Senzenina, and there would not be black-and-white stills of Sharpeville and police officers pushing insolent Blacks into a Chevrolet C100 police van.

Imagine, if you would, that this drama series was set in a South African business – say, an advertising agency. It might be the very advertising agency that came up with the “Braaivleis, Rugby, Sunny Skies and Chevrolet” jingle. The show would be a lush costume party of kitsch couture, Eames chairs and Nalco #44 eyewear. There would, of course, be a main character. A hard-charging, impeccably suited man of dark demeanour and debonair brow – an executive tasked with developing advertising campaigns. He would be Afrikaans in the same way that the Spartans in 300 are Greek. He would have an older mentor, someone who remembered Smuts and Herzog and dressed as if he did.

He would, of course, have a wife. Two kids, possibly. The wife, a stifled home-executive coiffed and dressed to symbolise that feminism has not yet alighted on these shores. The kids, innocent and haplessly cruel in the way that children are. They would not go to a school where casual violence is dispensed by Volk en Vaderland teachers. Great moments in South African history would be played out in a desultory sort of way – a radio announcement being turned off just as someone announces in stentorian tones that Verwoerd has been shot. The focus would be on the inner life – what it means to live under particular conditions, in certain times that just happen to be South African times.

Outré? Hardly. What I’m suggesting is little more than a South African version of the American TV series Mad Men, a show which dramatises the sexist, racist attitudes of the sixties and that seemingly debonair world, so closed in on itself.  But Mad Men would not work transplanted to a South African context for reasons other than the fact that it represents a very particular time in America’s history of consumerism. After all, South Africa had its own consumer culture, even while Mandela was on trial and Verwoerd was being stabbed and the Black Sash was marching and Winnie Mandela was being confined to a dusty patch of land. It wouldn’t go past the pilot. There is no market for a lush reimagining of 1960s Johannesburg. The SABC would not make it. It might be condemned to the sad fate of being an M-Net-flighted short film, known only to the sort of people who care to look for such things. Television, and South African television, especially, does not often play havoc with the surface of the material world. It relies on its manipulation of the always-already present.

More importantly, a show like Mad Men requires a particularly glib, self-assured relation to one’s nostalgia, a sense that things are better now than they were then. There is a degree of self-delusion informing that glibness, but the basic point adheres. It is a different form of apprehending the past, one that works by way of semaphorics and invoking, rather than extended exposition and laborious symbolism.

South Africa’s relationship to its nostalgia is laborious, fraught, disturbed. Or is it? Scholars of South African popular culture will know that there exists a sort of shorthand for speaking about Apartheid. Hollywood producers use it liberally to signal “South-Africanness”, and local ones do as well, if they’re producing something that might go off to a foreign film festival.  Yet we’ve been trained to appreciate the subtle for so long that there’s usually some guilt at the idea of flashily putting objects of nostalgia on display. So a show with long, panning shots of rugby fields and rusk tins will arouse the inevitable cry: whose nostalgia? And the suggestion that there might have been something cool happening in the mid-century South African city would meet a tide of disapproval so strong as to overwhelm the stroke of the scriptwriter’s pen.

Would the same concerns apply to a novel? Perhaps not. After all, television is a rather less involving medium, if only because it works with the blinking eye of the camera – the reader is at one remove, rather than poring over each and every detail. The novel allows more time for lengthy expositions of plot, character motives, and so on. The novel is thus a more comforting space to play out what are – or so we tell ourselves – the very serious moments about ourselves, because it allows (and sustains) the illusion of apprehending the Augenblick, the moment or instants in which people act or do not act or take decisions or do not take decisions that form or condemn or irrevocably alter their lives, which seem to grow more solid through being told.

If the step of transposing ABC’s Mad Men to a past urban South Africa seems a bit crude, it is because we are attuned to expect nuance and subtlety, to delight in its presence and reward its appearance. Why should subtlety be so at home here? We’ve tasked literature with remembering everything we’d rather forget. History writ hysterically. When Gil Scott Heron spoke about the “partial deification / Of partial accomplishments / Over partial periods of time”, he might as well have been speaking about how we treat our nostalgic literature. What is important is that our nostalgia traces the small moments: your slice of the greater history, in a very specific period of time, the more specific the better.

But perhaps this gesture I’m proposing amounts to little more than an impotent passage à l'acte – a posture much like the academic whose railing against everything insincere itself becomes sophistry. Or perhaps not. Perhaps what I’m proposing, pace Slavoj Žižek, is a leap of faith, a belief that truth will say itself without our intervention. The beauty of Mad Men is that its limitations in no way impinge on the message it brings across, because the viewer is able to make the imaginative leaps without being prompted at the appropriate places. To see this in a South African television show, let alone a South African novel, would be nothing short of fantastic.

We have been taught that specificity is important to how we read and understand the world around us. To notice it is to affiliate yourself with a higher, because more detailed and more “attentive”, mode of reading. The novel-reading cohort in this country takes itself as seriously as Kelvin Grove does. Its top stratum, those who read and write about reading and writing, agonise over the unanswerable question of who is then reading the nuanced tracts that have been written.  There has always been a sort of deficit of lightness in this group, a need to be seen as seeing beyond and into. The reason for this is obviously that after so many years of not hearing, of not bearing witness and of not telling, we have been shocked into a state of pained watchfulness. More stories, ever-more private tales, where “private” is just a bridge between your particular and my general.

Litpolitik in South Africa often operates in a mode of production-construction – it creates for itself an atmosphere of paranoia, anxiety and pursuit, reflecting our anxiety over the unevenness of post-transitional development. This is a broad statement which papers over a great swathe of literature in its wake, but this constant compulsion to make exceptions (or else apologies) for every unique strand is a further symptom of the malaise I’m documenting. We have to be seen as striking out against the apercu, and the perceived shallowness that it represents. So we spend our time telling anyone who wants to listen (and many who do not) about the need for detail, and lots of it.

In any event, if the trajectory of much South African writing over the last decade has shown anything, it is that there is a market for glib nostalgia. We just encode it differently. There is a vicarious pleasure to be derived from reading someone else’s memoirs and recognising areas or people or places which have come before but may no longer occupy this realm. But only certain people may express this warmth we want to share. It is easy to identify with Chris Van Wyk’s wry Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. Where white authors are concerned, anything told or revealed about the past must be at the very least sombre, and preferably expressive of remorse and regret. If it doesn’t take that route, then it must – qua Mark Behr and Jacques Pauw – allow the reader a smug vantage point from which to perch: the space of Knowing Better, which is always the space granted to those in the present from which they might observe the doings of the past.

What, then, might be more sensible than a deliberate turn away from nuance, a counter-event in which what happens is precisely and deliberately unconcerned with the politics of being problematic? If we are to accept that what matters most is not the event, but the retelling of the event (since that is all we have), then why not present a space of hysterical demands? This space is so called because it carries with it an acknowledgement of dangerous, brash risks to be taken, risks both of reward and of catastrophe. Is there room for an irresponsible space, amidst all the responsible spaces that confirm what we believe about the world we live in? An illusory space whose power lies in its very indifference to the notion of the real:  its shift away from painstakingly showing the inner life, towards an appreciation of less acute sensory impressions. In the same way that digital black and white photography need not necessarily be less satisfying than its analog counterpart simply because the artifice is clearer to the eye, there is surely a space for a certain type of nostalgia product, one which is a digital approximation of what the analogue is trying to achieve.

To be sure, this is not a “new” space. To seek it out is a difficult and ever-compromised exercise, because we are geared to seek out the ontological. This space I speak of is only weakly ontological: any form it takes is unresolved, inchoate, certainly aporetic. But because of this, it calls the ontological into question - it explores the terrain of the ontological assurances we use to build conventional expressions of nostalgia: their histories, their codes, and their norms. In so doing, it shows up the codes and shortcuts that accrue to all narratives, and the arbitrary nature of the value we place on certain forms of nostalgia above others.

In a shallow sense, there is something quite refreshing about the ease with which Mad Men proceeds – by way of confident demonstrations, exemplifications, and restatements. It barges through over-earnest liberal concerns, an envy at its appearance of freedom from national-narrative syndrome.  It presents an alluring bon-bon – suspend your disbelief and enjoy how pretty it all looks. To imagine that this form of looking at the past – in all its ecstatic, flippant jouissance, might one day find its way into a South African expression of nostalgia is to flirt with a tantalising possibility. It is to catch a glimpse of a temporary space, a space created by suspending the fear of not saying enough.

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This is excellent! So stimulating. Well done.

Beverly Rycroft says:

Stimulating, refreshing, liberating. Thank you for writing this.