Fearing the memories of history

After Apartheid: Race and Public Memory: Simon Gikandi and Kopano Ratele in conversation. Chaired by Sally-Anne Murray. Locations and Locutions lecture series, 31 March 2014, Stellenbosch.


The Stellenbosch University Graduate School's Locations and Locutions lecture series was conceived as a platform to promote critical awareness of and engagement with African contributions to global knowledge through a series of themed public lectures and theory seminars convened by key African thinkers. The conversation between Simon Gikandi and Kopano Ratele was organised as part of the Transitions and Translations research theme, which is concerned with modes of representation and interpretation, and the ways in which Africa is featured in local and global imaginaries.

The theme of the seminar addresses the question of race and public memory after apartheid, an issue that remains pertinent in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its history of racialised oppression and the concomitant tensions around commemoration.

Gikandi leads the conversation with a focus on the problem of memory in relation to the question of truth and reconciliation in South Africa. He notes that his interrogation is part of a wider research project dealing with questions of memory in South Africa, Biafra, and Kenya.

Gikandi starts by outlining what he considers to be the "unfinished business" of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He recognises the achievements of the TRC, which had from the start set itself the function of facilitating the ends of a restorative, as opposed to a retributive justice. What was at issue in the work of the TRC, states Gikandi, was nothing less than the moral mandate of coming to terms with South Africa's violent history and its legacy. The work of the TRC was a necessary prerequisite for South Africa to move forward.

However, despite these claims for the significance of the TRC, Gikandi suggests that, in light of its stated goals, the work of the TRC was impossible and unachievable. For Gikandi, the impasse lies in the tension between "truth" and "reconciliation". He argues that, in order to forgive, one must necessarily forget, or at any rate, repress. The real success of the TRC would be judged not on whether truth had been told, but rather on how effectively the TRC was able to provide South Africans with an alternative model for the work of decolonisation. In effect, the TRC's function was to chaperone South Africans into a new set of identities.

Invoking the examples of Algeria and Kenya, Gikandi notes that in these countries, citizens had been asked to become national subjects without dealing with the contradictions of the national narrative itself. In these countries, nationalisation was pegged on the mandate to forget in order to forgive. Gikandi contends that matters thus left unaddressed, have continued to haunt these nations years after decolonisation.

The case of South Africa was therefore singular, since it sought to confront the history of the nation to manage the dangers of the interregnum, and to demand truth as the basis for the future. The "unfinished business" of the TRC had to do with the fact that, in order for truth to be told, people had to give up memory.

For Gikandi, then, one of the major casualties of the TRC was memory, which had to be evacuated from both the discourses and performances of the TRC. [As my neighbour at the seminar pointed out, "amnesia" and "amnesty" both have their root in in the Greek word "amnestia": "forgetfulness".] Gikandi thus views the TRC as a form of collective therapy, where the mothers of the dead would be confronted with the bodies of their sons, ending in their forgiveness of others and also themselves. The goal of the TRC was to restore dignity to the victims as well as to humanise the perpetrators, allowing victim and perpetrator to appear in the public sphere as equals. However, memory complicates this relationship of restoration, and we see this in the testimony of the mothers who were asked to forgive the killers of their children. Gikandi shows how the mothers consistently come back to the fact that they feel as though something had died in them. He also points out the semantic ellipses in the testimony of the mothers of the victims, and the way in which "this thing called reconciliation" is framed as something that seems separate from their own needs and desires.

In many ways, then, memory acts as a firewall between those who want to tell the truth, and those who want to move into forgiveness, and Gikandi is prompted to ask: How authentic is a chaperoned form of forgiveness? In a sense, what the TRC demanded of South Africans was, on the one hand, to remember deeply in order to discover the truth, and on the other hand, to engage in a form of "forensic forgetting". For Gikandi, memories that are repressed are the most important, since they keep memory in play, and beg the question: What fills the place where memory should have been?

Gikandi proposes two courses of action as a way of correcting this erasure of memory: the one is the use of autobiography and life memoirs as a way of re-evaluating individual relationships with space – spaces of loss, and spaces of belonging. It is a way of creating a new bourgeois public sphere. The second course of action is to think of the work of art as something to be shared.

"Unfinished business" in South Africa, as elsewhere, is our failure to mourn the dead, because we are afraid of what we might discover in the depths of history. Gikandi suggests that we will discover a culture of suffering that can unite South Africans in ways unimagined. The dead are not limited to one cultural group or race. We are afraid of the ritual of mourning the dead, because we fear that it will bring back the memories of history.

Kopano Ratele positioned his talk as an explicit response to Gikandi's paper, which he had been sent beforehand. He starts by asserting that Gikandi's response to the TRC is "too kind". "The TRC," says Ratele, "has produced other impossibilities for Black subjects in particular."

Ratele reminds us that the TRC was after a particular kind of truth – one that sought reconciliation. Through its focus on race, rather than for example class, the kind of memories that the TRC was seeking displaces other kinds of everyday memories, such as remembering what your son was wearing on the day he was killed. Because they were not the spectacular kind of memories that the TRC was seeking, these everyday memories were displaced. In addition, Ratele considers the TRC to have been a performance primarily for the sake of Whites, and he points to the problematic of translation at the TRC as evidence to support this claim: testimony at the TRC was translated from indigenous languages into English and Afrikaans, but not into other Black languages, presumably on the assumption that "all blacks understand each other". Ratele is forced to conclude from this that the TRC was not addressing mostly Black people.

Ratele points out that "telling the truth is not a simple matter". The problem is how the TRC thought of truth and memory. Invoking the case of Oscar Pistorius as example, Ratele notes that the assumption that individuals can "switch on a light and remember everything", is problematic. Memory is inter-subjective, and we can never remember things as they were.

The past, in refusing to be buried, haunts the present, and Ratele proposes that the TRC was more of a failure than we would like to admit. For him, South Africa cannot be understood without understanding death. "Death haunts poor lives," and interracial violence – violence from young Black men to young Black men – as well as sex and gender violence, have merely replaced the political violence of apartheid.

While the TRC focused solely on gross human rights violations, Ratele suggests that everyday violations could at times be much more painful. A different view of apartheid – one that views apartheid racism as part of global racism – focusing on the mundane indignities and humiliations that Black subjects live with, can help an international audience better to understand South African racism than vast, gross incidents of racism might do. For Ratele, finally, if we are to apprehend the larger narrative left out of the TRC, we must view the over-determined nature of the process itself.

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