(Hi)Story, Truth and Nation
Building a "new" South Africa
South Africa is facing the process of developing a new identity for itself and its people, and to deal with its past. Jyoti Mistry looks at the meaning of nations and the nation state in examining this process of creation of a national identity. Story-telling, history and memory play vital parts, particularly in South Africa, in building this “whole”. In a story that has no end in sight, she looks at how a country is dealing with its past and stepping into its future.
In order to develop a sense of how South Africa will achieve its “new” national identity it is necessary to attend to the question of definitions of nation, nationalism and the formation of nation states and, to further examine the place of history, memory and significance of identity formation – in the creation of loyalties towards a unified ideal.
In wanting to open up a dialogue on identity formation I have chosen to address the relations of history and memory. This underpins the political developments in South Africa, creating the space to reflect on the importance of (hi)story as it informs identity and impacts the identity of the nation at large.
Some years ago I was told by a professor and mentor in an Africana Studies department that in order to best express the theories of Africa we must tell our stories, it is in re-empowering ourselves with the word, in owning our own tongues that our past can be spoken of, and in the telling of our past, is any future possible. We must speak these stories and, in telling them in our own voices are we sure that people will listen, and in the story we/they will come to know our histories, because History in its grand project is really story as it comes to be interpreted, told and retold, and only in its retelling it is remembered.1
Once upon a time, in a land at the furthest tip of the African continent there was a place of incredible abundance. A land of fertile soil, rich in resources, wealthy by the design of gods and ancestors who blessed it with oceans and seas; not just rich in food but a place perfectly poised between the route to the east from the west. Intrepid explorers braced the torrid currents, shielded themselves from the ravages of the ocean in desperate attempts to seek the land of opportunity and cape of good hope; to house them en route to the promises and prosperity of the east. This land came to be called South Africa, flanked by oceans, nestled in vegetation, and far away, down south from the rest of the world, where it appeared to have been forgotten by time……
Then one day, as though by accident, but not quite, for these things are never per chance – it seemed like the world suddenly remembered – heard, listened, stood still in silence – because from this place far away – at the furthest tip of Africa – there was a calling – a new way of seeing, a new way of listening, a new way of being heard and of being.
This is a tale of suffering, this is a legend of triumph, these are the stories of change – this is a history of transformation……
The event I make reference to is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which has become the symbol of South Africa’s aspiration to build a country of National Unity, embracing its diversity while creating from the ashes of its past suffering – a phoenix – soaring into a vast, ambitious future towards a vision of harmonious living.
The ideas informing the South African experience of a nation unified by a common and shared history of oppression is what lends the uniqueness of its national vision. By creating the TRC the government very astutely provided a way of celebrating at once the death of its fractured past, an anguished society – while celebrating the birth of a nation and bringing forth the possibility of a future for those who thought that non was possible.
Rather than rely on a single confining definition of nation and nationalism, I would like to evoke Ernest Renan’s reflections in his lecture “What is a Nation?” delivered in 1882 at the Sorbonne. His ideas provide a useful lens to make sense of the experiences of the people in South Africa, towards forging a nation. One of the initiating impulses leading to nation is a connection between the past and the present. This connection makes it possible for people to identify with a past/present, and in so doing can design a future of common consensus. Renan says: “To have common glories in the past and to have common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more – these are the essential conditions for being a people. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered.”(my emphasis,1990:19)
TRC – memory, forgetting and (hi)stories
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, a two and a half year project was initiated by the Reverend Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel prize winner for Peace. The scope, scale and undertaking of the commission was phenomenal to put it simply, but its aims, its socio-political impact and outcome by no means simple. It is important to mention also that it was Tutu who proliferated the idea of SA as a rainbow nation and for instilling in his rhetoric the notion of a nation divided in its past, while recognizing that whites too had suffered the terror of apartheid , but united in the suffering resultant of an oppressive society.
Thus for Tutu the TRC functioned as a place where ” the whole story [could not be told]; but it [would] provide a perspective on the truth about the past” (Tutu quoted in TRC Final Report 1998:V1) “By telling their stories, both victims and perpetrators gave meaning to the multi-layered experiences of the South African story. These personal truths were communicated to the broader public by the media. In the (South) African context, where value continues to be attached to oral tradition, the process of story-telling was particularly important. Indeed, this aspect is a distinctive and unique feature of the legislation governing the commission […] The Act explicitly recognized the healing potential of telling stories.” (TRC Final Report 1998:V1.5)
The TRC was styled like the Nuernberg trials, and drew some its inspiration from the Chilean trials which took place after the Pinochet reign of terror – however the TRC is essentially a unique historical event because its aim – even though a trial – was neither to judge nor prosecute because by its design it did not have the power to do this. Instead the macro-vision of the project was to serve as a witness, catharsis and to function in the facilitation of creating a new “healed” nation.
The TRC as national catharsis
It is important to highlight the nature of this commission in summary:
(1) The commission was an open process, mediated through television, radio and newspapers. It invited the public to participate and made its process open to scrutiny.
(2) The reconciliation between victims and perpetrators took place in closed hearings because of media intervention which interpreted the events, through the choice of their soundbites, photographs and footage shown on television. It should be pointed out that even though the process was designed to be open, encourage media coverage and public intervention, the harshest criticism of the commission came from the media; critiquing the TRC’s aims, process and its principles of “truth” and “reconciliation.”
(3) The open process of the TRC was to promote a culture of democracy and national unity, establish a sense of historical continuity for those who had experienced violations and facilitate a process of reconciliation through amnesty.
(4) Finally, the TRC in aiming to make individuals and institutions accountable for their actions in the past; seeks to restore credibility to these individuals and institutions to enable governance in a future, democratic society.
It is has never been easy to assign a definition to Truth. The commission deliberated long on how to deal with the philosophical and practical imperatives of truth and the implications of the definition. Questions of objectivity, the mediation of information and subjectivity were all aspects factored into the discussion which eventually resulted in the existent categories.
The concept of “truth” was defined in four ways to reflect on the different aspects of the commission and its concern with granting amnesty not based on judgement to prosecute, but as a means of uncovering the past; to enable continuity in knowledge where fissures had been created either by the state or in opposition to the state.
1) Factual/Forensic Truth
This truth circumscribes empirical information and conceives of truth as “objective”, documented and impartial. It took into account two essential areas of investigation and procedure: (i) used extensive corroboration and verification of events from eye witnesses, those involved directly and indirectly and those responsible for documenting the information, (ii) focused on the contexts, causes and patterns of violations: analyzing, interpreting and establishing inferences based on the conditions of (i) and taking to account the former conditions of (ii). It should be added that the TRC was fully aware of the difficulty of establishing any notion of an “objective”/empirical truth and sought instead to emulate the Chilean sentiment expressed by Michael Ignatieff of “reducing the number of lies” rather than claiming a truth in this category.
2) Personal and Narrative Truth
The aim of this type of “truth – telling” was to create a context for people to tell their stories and experiences of abuses in their own language – the rhetoric being to give voice and the power of expression to those historically denied this right and opportunity. To this end a “narrative truth” was in the making, in its own words: “[ the commission sought to] recover parts of the national memory that had hitherto being officially forgotten.” (TRC Final Report 1998:V1.5)
3) Social or Dialogue Truth
This truth as described by the Judge Albie Sachs, considers the social network of the experiences of truth; the establishment of truth through interaction, discussion and debate. The goal of these processes was to make possible the articulation of the different registers of perceptions of truth from disparate quarters in the South African community. By this is meant that the TRC facilitated hearings on the complex motives of all individuals of all socio-political and religious persuasion, this included individuals from SANDF, (South African National Defense Force), non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and political parties. The TRC emphasized the reclamation of the truth as the dignity of human beings in society learning to recoup its social relations, thus creating a space to address the issue of human rights and the path to democracy.
4) Healing and Restorative Truth
Central to this definition of truth is the role of acknowledgment; the witness and affirmation of suffering, personal pain of the individual. This public acknowledgment restores the dignity of victims who are paid the respect that their suffering is real and worthy of attention. The purpose of this “healing” creates the context of human relationships and makes citizens accountable to each other and the state accountable to its citizens. Most importantly, it seems to me, in this category of truth is the designation of the possibility of a future. By enabling the performance of witness, a catharsis for the entire society is experienced; purging itself from the bloodshed (on both sides) and facilitating a renewal through the discourse of healing and restoration.In reconciling the events of the past and seeking a truth, the TRC functioned to help South African society “deal with the past – [which meant] knowing what happened.” (Tutu 1998:V1)
In order to wholly appreciate exactly what these injustices of the past were, what memories were being recalled and in recounting the events previously unaccounted for, it is necessary for me to set-up the playing fields of the past. Later in this paper the analysis I offer (as to how history was constructed and used) is through Friedrich Nietzsche’s meditation on “The uses and disadvantages of history for life.”
So here is a reflection of the past….
The arrival of white settlers in 1652 began the long history of colonialism in South Africa. The contest for land between the English and Dutch displaced and dispossessed many indigenous peoples. In retelling this brief account of events I have no desire to fall into the trap of romanticizing the precolonial political climate in South Africa nor is it my intention to account for all the different events since 1652. Rather I intend to reflect on the seminal era dealing with the institutionalization of apartheid and the impact of Afrikaner Nationalist Party politics.
The two most powerful influences on South Africa’s past and in the formation of its identity before we attend to apartheid are:
(1) Evangelical Christianity penetrated African society most intensively in the nineteenth century denouncing the practices of African rituals and ancestral worship. “They denounced polygamy, initiation, bride wealth and other cornerstones of African culture. They enforced new dress codes and new forms of architecture. They introduced literacy and western education and they celebrated the improving impact of commerce and wage labor. At first they attracted no more than a handful of followers. Their demands for radical transformation alienated the vast majority of Africans and their chiefs but a minority responded to the brave new world the missionaries offered.” ( 1993:2) Those families which assumed the new life-style offered by Christianity were seen as radical, non-conformers in African society. They had to endure the criticism of their people but concurrently experienced further alienation within the white Christian community which claimed to embrace them.
One of the strongest influences of the church has been the reshaping of the African idea of family, home and the emphasis on belonging to the land (either in its most literal sense or in its broadest, addressing ideas of patriotism), by taking on the social responsibility for belonging in a community. These values in many ways hark back to traditional African values; to the importance of the elders in the community and an obligation for the care of the family.
The fragmentation of African ideals is largely attributable to the shift from a rural, traditional lifestyle to the impact of land displacement experienced by blacks in the nineteenth century and the impact of urbanization in the early twentieth century. Early segregation and pass laws regulated the movement of blacks into cities. Those who had alienated themselves from traditional culture (often Christian converts) and migrant labor formed much of the early population in cities. The regulation of movement of Africans to and in the cities meant that entire families were not permitted to enter urban environments. Parts of the nuclear family was left in the care of the elderly leading to the fragmentation of family units. Those dispossessed of their land by white farmers either had the choice to remain as farm hands under very harsh and trying conditions or fled to an urban life in hopes of a more prosperous future.
Solomon Plaatjie, retells the fate of a family dispossessed by the 1913 Land Act:
“Kgobadi, a colored squatter in the Transvaal was on his way to the Orange Free state to his father in law. He had been forced off his land and the white baas had offered him, his wife and oxen work on the land (originally owned by Kgobadi) for R38 (18 pounds) per annum. Before the Land Act, Kgobadi was making R200 (100 pound) per year selling his crops. He told the baas that he was not going to work for such low wages. The baas told Kgobabi to go.
So, Kgobai, his family and his father-in-law had nowhere to go. They were wandering around the roads on cold winter with everything they owned. Kgobadi’s goats gave birth but one by one they died and were left by the roadside for the jackals and the vultures to eat. Mrs. Kgobadi’s child was sick, she put the child in the ox-wagon which bumped along the raod and two days later the child died. Where would they bury the child? They had no rights to bury it on any land. Late that night, the poor young mother and father had to dig a grave where no one could see them – they buried their child in a stolen grave. Plaatjie ended the story with a moral reflection: even criminals who are hanged had a right to a proper grave.”
(Excerpt from the TRC Final Report – 1998)
(2) Early segregation and pass laws regulated the movement of blacks into cities. Those who had alienated themselves from traditional culture (often Christian converts) and migrant labor formed much of the early population in cities. The regulation of movement of Africans to and in the cities meant that entire families were not permitted to enter urban environments. The economic reality for Africans was not that promising in the city either, often the only option for work was in the mines. Urban African families had to contend with the new socio-economic conditions, strict employment restrictions and the feeling of rural responsibilities; both economically and socially.
Particularly in an urban context the role of American culture and its influence on African youth is seen as early as the nineteen-fifties 2. The influence of American culture still functions as a role model to many Africans in contemporary South Africa. This identification includes but also transcends the assumed cultural globalization process. African-Americans function as role models for African youth, reflecting the life-styles they wish to aspire for; they signify economic prosperity and the ability to emerge from oppression victoriously. The identification with African-Americans is largely a function of economic aspirations and class mobility; it is not simply one of identifying with a political programmatic. In this respect Africans are very aware of the historical parameters which define each of their realities. There are grievous misconceptions of the African-American experience and much of these idealized relations to African-Americanness is a function of popular culture exportation.In “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life” identifies three species of history. He writes: “If the man who wants to do something great has need for the past at all, he appropriates it by means of monumental history, he, on the other hand who likes to persist in the familiar and the revered of old, tends the past as an antiquarian historian, and only he who is oppressed by a present need, and who wants to throw off his burden at any cost, has need of critical history, that is to say a history that judges and condemns.” ( 1997:72)
In making a case for the radical intervention of a critical history, Nietzsche must show the criteria and evaluating process which facilitates the condemnation of the past, in favor of a second nature. How is the value and worth of events in history determinable, what criteria is to be used, and what is its relation to the individual; to people and ultimately how does this relate to the nation. In answering his thesis, Nietzsche raises the concern of objectivity and the place of justice and truth in determining the critical history. The desire for objectivity is driven by the need for truth, to understand the circumstances of our lives; and the conditions which make life possible. The TRC based on this definition, is a critical history in the making. By distinguishing between four types of “truth” it emphasizes the constructed nature of truth claims, the importance of addressing subjectivity and political experience to ascertain what measure of “truthfulness” can be gleaned, from the recounting of events and stories. Once again the South African TRC can boast its uniqueness. The simultaneous retelling of events from the point-of-view of victims and perpetrators reverberated the injustices of apartheid. Thus the Monumental construction of apartheid history was held-up directly in the face of Antiquarianism experienced by the vast majority of black South Africans. In making this process readily available for all to see, hear and part-take in and witness the TRC created a critical space. A space where the past had to enact with the present directly without the masquerade of national rhetoric. These were the peoples of South Africa telling their stories as people who had suffered a heinous past, and were seeking resolve in the present.
1948 : The National Party comes to power.
The National Party was essentially responsible for the formalization of apartheid. As I have alluded earlier, English and Dutch colonialism had already created the environment for discrimination and oppression of indigenous peoples. However, the term “apartheid”3 and the implementation of its segregated laws was legitimized (through legislation) by the National Party (NP). To clarify: the NP was (is) an Afrikaner nationalist party. The discourse and the sentiment of the Afrikaner is a claim to the land and history of the country because they fought two wars (the Anglo-Boer Wars) to achieve their independence from the Dutch and then the British. This sentiment continues, the far right (AWB)4 , demanded in its settlement with the government of national unity a “reserve”or state of their own, with the power to self-govern5.
This connection to the land is a deep seated Afrikaner emotional claim, because the Afrikaner imagine themselves as pioneers (the Voortrekkers) of the hinterland; while attempting to escape English colonialism. The NP is thus responsible for propagating a monumental history of its achievements. It used the archetypical rhetoric of colonialism; barbarizing blacks and showing them as savages incapable of farming the land, with the need for civilizing through Christian values and, by working hard in the service of the Afrikaner blacks would be civilized. The Master and Servants Act between 1856 – 1910, fostered this notion of Africans as servants to whites; applicable particularly for unskilled labor. The 1913 Land Act augmented this divide and created a situation which was more a master-slave relationship. Unlike the master-slave relationship of the North American south, blacks were “free” to leave, enabling the urban influx I posited earlier.
The Afrikaner meta-narrative is based on the struggles of Afrikaners not only to acquire land, but to create a place for their language, culture and religion. The monumental glorifying of the past is created by celebrating the conquests over the Zulus – the key warrior faction in South Africa. National holidays under apartheid celebrated these victories against the oppression of the English, and the threat of African savagery. The ‘official history’ from 1948 – 1960, written by the Nationalist Party through its separatist policies “protected” whites from blacks, justifying their programmatic as a fundamental step to civilizing the African. The use of Afrikaans as the official language further alienated Africans. Language (Afrikaans) was instrumental in creating a space for an Antiquarian approach to history for the National Party.
The uniqueness of the language was celebrated by awarding national prizes for Afrikaans literature and writing. Films and television programming in Afrikaans were funded most partially by the state. The erection of monuments celebrating the bravery of the Afrikaner pioneers and their determination to preserve their language and culture, in the face of English, is evident in structures like The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and the Monument to the Afrikaans language in Stellenbosch. The need to revere and preserve Afrikaner culture was tied in to a particular stream of Afrikaner Christianity, which, even though “god-fearing”, accommodated the exploitation and abuse of Africans under the missionary rubric of “civilizing the native”.
Afrikaners had their own “national” dress, offered a foreign culture to the African majority in a language alien to them and a history black Africans could not identify with.
Africans had no relation to the pioneering conquests of the hinterland, there was no need for this, they occupied the land of their ancestors, spoke in a language they were raised in and expressed rituals and cultures in forms passed to them by their fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers. They wore the clothes of their tribe; clan; and/or designated region – often reflecting their social standing. They too fought wars in a similar spirit of all tribes and peoples, but with weapons and rules applicable to their knowledge, their traditions and in the ethos of an epistemology defined by themselves. There was a sense of an African self definable in the world view they knew, and not of a language, culture and identity Other than themselves. The white settler was the Other.
In thinking through this idea of a living memory of a past, the period before 1948 was a vague “imagination”, an idea of what access; freedom; the right to one’s culture, language and identity meant. In this respect the African cannot in the period we are dealing with (1948 – the rise of the NP), reflect on history as a monumental project; colonialism had systematically already eroded the grand, beautifying, mythologizing past of the African. By replacing, and officially creating a meta-narrative, imposed on all (blacks and whites both) South Africans, everyone, was a part of the Afrikaner history but the interpretations of these roles is wherein the dissonance lies. These factors notwithstanding, the presence of the Antiquarian history was fundamental to sustaining the African and but also in helping to maintain the separatist, apartheid policies.
Let me explain: African traditions, the observation of ancestral authority; the preservation of certain initiation rituals/rites and daily maintenance of self in relation to the community (ubuntu)6 were retained, even through the process of urbanization. This is particularly evident of African languages and cultural practices. African languages are spoken widely and the new constitution in South Africa accommodates eleven official languages. The daily lived experiences of apartheid and oppression alienated the African. The need for maintaining one’s past was to preserve a part of the cultural heritage in the face of the alienating experiences of Afrikaner culture and language. The National Party encouraged Africans to return to rural settlements and to maintain traditional values thus discouraging the urbanization of Africans. This was a very prominent part of the apartheid agenda and was a strong part of National Party propaganda campaign, implemented through films. The National Party rationalized that urban spaces were not natural nor conducive to African temperament. Therefore by encouraging traditional values and the return to rural settlements they were acting in the best interest of the African. This propaganda aided the apartheid agenda of regulating, controlling the movement of blacks and discouraging the already escalating urban influx. The unanticipated backlash of encouraging Africans an Antiquarian relation to their past, meant the NP forced Africans to think of their past as part of a continuum in the present and to force the examination of their lives in relation to the prevailing oppressive governance of the white, Afrikaner National Party. My aim at this point is to stress the different registers at which history operated for different race groups in South Africa. Also I would like to emphasize that my use of the terms blacks and Africans is not interchangeable. Apartheid segregated and distinguished between Indians and Coloureds as well and while Indians and Coloureds were treated as blacks, for the most part certain legislative leniencies were granted at different historical moments. However by the 1960’s the Indians, Coloureds and Africans had joined forces as the United Democratic Front to fight in the liberation struggle together. Part of the National Party’s aim was to separate these groups politically and ideologically, hence the rationale of separate development and different degrees of apartheid policies. The determination to prevent a political unification of the races in South Africa by the NP was a failed project, indicative of the present government of national unity. Between 1948 and 1960, the NP played on the differences between the races but always encouraging Africans, Indians and Coloureds to maintain their culture, language and traditions.
In summary the period between 1948 to 1960: The monumental history of Afrikaner nationalism was the prevailing official, met-narrative and memory created for the entire South African population. This history was reflected as the origin of South Africanness, the start of civilization and the beginning of the history of the South African peoples, both black and white. It was the history taught at schools, perpetuated by the state and reinforced by the media; it was the history of all South Africans. This was a memory and history generated by a small white minority. The black majority had a distant memory of a time when they were free, not because they had lived it but because its Antiquarian relation to the past alluded to an experience of freedom, autonomy; and the right to culture, language and identity of one’s own choosing. For blacks language, culture and identity were the “sacred elements of the past, artifacts” (Nietzsche 1990:73) needing to be preserved in the face of Afrikaner nationalism. By the NP encouraging Antiquarianism, blacks became more and more aware of their situation as oppressed, enslaved and discriminated against and by 1960 the state could no longer contain the repression it had created.
1960 – The Turning Point ….. and its spiraling effect
“Knowledge of the past has at all times been desired only in the service of the future and the present and not for the weakening of the present or for depriving a vigorous future of its roots: all this is simple, as the truth is simple, and will at once be obvious even to him who has not had it demonstrated by historical proof.”(1997:77)
This particular historical moment marks the start of contemporary South African history. From 1960 onwards activism, protests and rallying against the apartheid government would continue to grow steadily until the release of Nelson Mandela (11 February 1990), and the processes towards a negotiated settlement had been reached. “[1960-1994] was the climatic phase of conflict that dated back to the mid-seventeenth century” (TRC 1998:V1) making it a valuable, necessary analysis to reflect on the use of history not just in establishing a solidarity for a political cause, but to suggest how solidarity is manipulated as identity. The growing tension since 1948 between the state and the oppressed majority resulted in a bloody confrontation on March twenty-first, 1960 in Shapeville7, Johannesburg. The growing mobilization activities of the ANC (African National Congress), the PAC, and the United Democratic Front (UDF), emphasized the injustices of apartheid, using the discourse and rhetoric associated with liberation struggles throughout the world. The Afrikaner National Party had made apparent, by its own doing, the chasm between the histories and lived experiences of blacks and whites. The liberation movements thus re-interpreted this official history to show how the land originally theirs had been usurped by the Afrikaner. In its mobilizing rhetoric, history, the different relations and interpretations of history were highlighted by the UDF and particularly the ANC. The official Afrikaner history became a critical history; “on which [one] reflected, examined and condemned [ones’] past” (Nietzsche 1990:78), for the black majority. Condemning not the past of its people (Africans), but the official past which had been created by the National Party with an Afrikaner identity. Furthermore at this moment, an extremely interesting shift unfolds regarding Africans and their interpretations of their history. What was once an Antiquarian relation to traditional values, culture and language becomes a Monumental history. In reclaiming its African past in the vein of Black Consciousness, a new pride in the pre-colonial history of South Africa was revived. The glorifying, and mythologising of pre-colonial Africa, African kings, kingdoms and leadership; a necessary rekindling of the past forgotten, was reawakened and remembered. But with a cautious and critical eye on the present.
In my opinion the period between 1960 and 1994 even though historically the turning point was not a time in South Africa when the past was a hovering effetus waiting to be imitated. Forgetting was an important part of allowing the experience of being in the present (unhistorical), being in the moment of the struggle for liberation against oppression. Nietzsche’s concept of the unhistorical describes not just the driving ethos of the Afrikaner to maintain the status quo of apartheid but of the black majority to overthrow the apartheid ideology being peddled by the NP. One may consider the state of South African politics as a place of ideological warfare. This manifested itself, as would be expected in many violent political clashes between the NP and the growing members of the liberation movement (anti-apartheid struggle). The NP was responsible for the ‘elimination’ of numerous political activists, inciting riots and retaliations and instigating what was then termed “black-on-black” violence.
One of the aims of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to address the discontinuities of the past, and uncover incidences and circumstances under which people “disappeared”. During this time, the country went through several “States of Emergency” some lasting as long as eight months. The power of the state to enter and arrest indiscriminately forced people to live in constant fear and threat of violation and intimidation. What I am suggesting here is a fractured sense of time; a forgetting between the past and the contemporary mood of the time. Being in the present for the white Afrikaner National Party meant maintaining their hegemonic position, retaining ideological and state control by any means necessary. “By any means necessary” meant the barbaric killings of hundreds of Africans in the townships, the systemic infiltration of the black community, arrests, torture in detention and detention without a trial. For the black majority this meant resisting all forms of oppression and becoming as “ungovernable” to the white minority as possible. Strikes, riots, stonings and bombings in white areas and civil spaces were the markers of the protest against the NP government.
In Nietzsche’s definition it may be said that 1960 – 1994 was history in the making, a time when the clash of ideologies and political aspirations where in constant battle. This dualism of “preservation-challenge” of apartheid meant being in the moment, in the present without being encumbered by the weight of history. In making history, I mean the events of protests against apartheid and the states treatment of activists. These are the events which come to have the effetus for monumentalization after 1994, and the new regime in South Africa will painstakingly use such events of the past to create and write their new history.
1994 – new beginning, new possibilities
“When black South Africans by the millions turned out to vote for the first time in their lives in April 1994, the world saw them standing patiently from before dawn, in lines so long they often seemed endless. Even those who could not read, and that, arguably was the vast majority, knew they were in the process of making their own miracle.” (1998:viii)
The first democratic elections marked the birth of a new nation; with it would come the responsibility to recover and rewrite the histories which had been forgotten or withheld by the state and/or in the memories of the custodians of the apartheid state. Passed by a Parliamentary Act, known as the National Unity and Reconciliation Act (TRC as it came to be known) was responsible for unearthing the past truths. Through this process South Africans would come to know their “real”, “true” identity, no longer as a fractured society but as one healing its past by bridging the fissures of history, providing knowledge where gaps once existed.
December 16th 1995, (now commemorated as Day of Reconciliation – a national holiday) marked the beginning of the long, painful process of truth recovery. The controversy and criticism of the TRC emerged from all quarters and at every step – at its point of inception from the media, the press, all political parties in South Africa and academics too, to the day that the reports were to be turned in to President Nelson Mandela on October 29th, 1998. testament in Country of my Skull details the political controversy of the final reports and the ANC’s interdict to prevent the TRC from making its report public. The reports contained not only the gross human rights violations of the apartheid government but the atrocities committed by the ANC members in their training camps. Clearly the desire of the ANC as the new political party was to present itself as a martyr in a “just war”, having just cause for its actions. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairperson of the TRC continually pointed out over the two and a half years of the commission’s proceedings; the function of the TRC was to recover the truth of the past for all South Africans. Its aim was neither to serve the political agenda of the ANC in heroizing their contribution to the liberation struggle nor was it to serve in demonizing white South Africans and the apartheid regime. Applicants for amnesty had to apply as individuals, voluntarily and political parties, institutions and organizations were not eligible to apply. Its central aim was to bring the people of South Africa together, to bring all races together and to facilitate a dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors, between victims and perpetrators. Providing a platform of unity the TRC, finds as its impetus Tutu’s ubuntu theology. “In his view the main thrust of reconciliation is between people of all colors – embodied in the idea of the “rainbow nation.” ( 1999:145) This runs antithetical to the definition and expectations of reconciliation from the ANC in general and of Thabo Mbeki in particular.
It is worthwhile to reflect on these differences because they highlight the intended uses of the TRC outcomes. For Desmond Tutu the process of reconciliation is one of healing, restoration of the human spirit and the eradication of the color divide between blacks and whites in South Africa. Tutu conceives of black people as embodying a superior sense of humanity which transcends cold logic. The rationale that even though whites have oppressed blacks in the most gruesome ways they (black people) have the ability to forgive (not forget) and move on to restoration, with a focus on building a future together. Tutu’s paradigm therefore relies on the resilience of the human condition, the desire in humans to survive and to create the conditions, to facilitate the environment in which this (equal chances of survival) may be realized. Furthermore, this ethos ensures a peaceful and safe transition from apartheid to democracy, enabling nation building to become the central vision for all South Africans. “The South African experience has taught us that reconciled coexistence is essential for survival. Personal survival is inextricably linked to the survival of others.” (Abner Mofokeng quoted in 1999:145)
Contrary to Tutu, Mbeki’s rhetoric continually highlights the racial divide in South Africa, not just historically but in contemporary South Africa as well. Coupled with his African Renaissance program Mbeki’s now famous “Two Nations” speech sets into motion an enlarging of the racial divide. For Mbeki reconciliation is not between victims and perpetrators but between whites and blacks. Whites were the beneficiaries of the apartheid system and even though they may not have directly been involved in committing crimes against blacks they helped perpetuate the system by participating (passively) in it and enjoyed its material benefits. Therefore blacks in South Africa were exploited to the benefit of whites. Two nations in South Africa for Mbeki are a rich white nation and a poor black nation. Reconciliation is not a priority for Mbeki, instead his aim is to see the transformation of South African society, where nation building and the redistribution of power and wealth are the initial steps. Reconciliation for him can only take place after this transformation happens successfully. At this point the African Renaissance ideology becomes as useful mechanism for Mbeki to suggest how this transformation will disseminate. By instilling black pride in blacks and restoring a lost confidence in themselves as a people, Mbeki wants to create a self-assurance in self governance. “He wants to show the world that black people can run a country and a continent successfully. For him the reconciliation should take place among all black people with white people in peaceful coexistence.” ( 1999:145)
Two aspects of Mbeki’s rhetoric need to be explored, no matter what the inherent contradictions. The first ties into the political party line of the ANC. Accusations of ANC bias by the TRC were prevalent from the get-go, but Tutu abated these suspicions, turning the tides to reflect that this was not the case. The ANC’s attempted interdict to stop the reports going public, cost the ANC and its leadership its credibility among the larger public who questioned what the ANC had to hide. More importantly, it shattered the misconception and illusion that the ANC’s history is synonymous with the history of resistence in South Africa. Furthermore, it revealed that the simple dichotomy of apartheid as a terror machine and the ANC’s armed struggle as a just means were plagued by their own inner conflicts and human rights violations. Mbkei’s response to the revelation of ANC human rights violations in their camps recurred to the rhetoric of a “just war” – even though the Geneva conventions make clear that a just war with unjust means is still a violation. Michael Ignatieff explains this logical dissonance as follows: “Aggressors have their own defense against the truth, but so do victims. People who believe themselves to be victims of aggression have an understandable incapacity to believe that they also committed atrocities. Myths of innocence and victimhood are a powerful obstacle in the way of confronting unwelcome facts.” (quoted in 1999:374)
What the TRC further revealed is the many forms and complexity of the fragmented moral fabric in a country devastated by criminal and political violence. Any attempts for transformation, reconciliation or restoration – in whatever imagined order would have to deal with the eroded morality of this society. Antjie Krog in the most self-reflexive moments of her book Country of my Skull reveals the second important contradiction and assumption that blacks and whites in South Africa make about each other. The inner dilemmas of the Afrikaner, the inability to reconcile the prejudices of race and religion, the value placed on Afrikaner culture and its preservation (at all costs) reflects the warped indoctrination and attitudes created about blacks. In the testimony of the Vlakplass Five8 psychiatrist Dr. Sean Kaliski describes the reasoned connections Afrikaners had for opposing blacks. It was not just the fear of communism and its non-religious sentiment (recall that Afrikaner identity is strongly tied to the church) but in cultured attitudes towards blacks. “We believed that black people were not human; they were a threat, they were going to kill us all and then waste away the country until it was nothing but another African disaster area.” (quoted in 1999:118) Such testimony reflects the deep-rooted prejudices of the Afrikaner towards black people. However, refracted through the African Renaissance discourse both these ways of thinking speak of the racism inherent in South African society – making both whites and blacks equally responsible for perpetuating racism.
in grappling with her Afrikaner identity and attempting to reconcile her liberal politics asks the central question at the heart of building a new national identity through the TRC: “Is truth that closely related to identity? It must be. What you believe to be true depends on who you believe yourself to be.” (emphasis added, 1999:125)
By tying self (identity) to a historical context and reflecting on the constructedness of identity Krog evokes a critical reflection of history as describes it. The power of the TRC is its ability to construct not just a genealogy of different histories, but how those histories determined and shaped identity. A second order of history (or knowledge) as Nietzsche defines it becomes the new way of reflecting on the world and the self in the world. Recall, for him, the temporary suspension of forgetting is necessary to examine and then condemn the past, making a second order of knowing (democracy) possible in the world. What was forgotten in the period 1960-1994, is recalled, remembered and then condemned publically through the mechanism of a truth and reconciliation commission. The past (apartheid) must be condemned in South Africa, because building a democratic future requires the disapprobation of the oppressive and iniquitous socio-political structure. Krog’s pleading question is thus wholly explicable. When a new order is created, a new historical context coupled with a new epistemic foundation, then old identities grounded in previous histories are displaced. For the Afrikaner the guilt of apartheid is entwined with the black peoples’ culture of shame and injury. Shame because of the suffering, the torture and the humiliation experienced blacks is now displayed publically, as openly as the guilt of being an oppressor. According to , truth commissions can and do change the frame of public discourse and public memory. “But they can not be judged a failure because they fail to change behavior and institutions. This is not their function.” (quote in 1999:374) To me the TRC was an invaluable necessity in setting a precedent, a yardstick to forge a level playing field, on which to set all South Africans irrespective of race, gender or ethnicity. Its function reflects a commitment to democracy and a need for the preservation of life, a celebration that South African society in general survived its inhumane past. The testimony of the victims is etched in the memory of the people and has become a part of the national psyche because all South Africans were witness to it. Such a powerful acknowledgment of the past for the first time does have a powerful effect on the nation, if not the world. Internationally, the silence concerning the horrors and then later the ecstatic exuberance with which the world embraced the process suggests the magnitude and importance of this event in South Africa.
In rewriting South African history through the TRC , a new beginning is possible and a new identity becomes conceivable; an identity not wholly defined by epidermalization but one which embraces the multiple facets of an individual’s life. The success of reconciliation can not be measured yet, it is too early and the wounds are still fresh and run deep. “The essence of reconciliation is survival. Its key is negotiation. Survival forms part of our genetic make-up and the ability to reconcile via negotiation is the reason why some of us are still around. […] Reconciliation is not only a process. It is a cycle that will be repeated many times.” ( 1999:386)
What makes the South African liberation struggle unique in Africa is its spatial location. As Patricia McFadden, a prominent Zimbabwean academic and activist points out, the rest of Africa fought its battles on the rural fields of the continent, South Africa fought its battles in towns and cities, in court rooms and in negotiated forums. In many respects South Africa’s liberation was the design of an educated black elite with the force and mass, of labor unions behind it. It is a liberation struggle that took place in the townships, in schools, in the city. This small and powerful, educated black elite empowered the vast illiterate majority with the rhetoric of emancipation. In so doing the country has been led into a new age emergent from the trust created by the solidarity of suffering it experienced. To this end I agree with Renan’s conception of how nations’ are formed : “Suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort. A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; that is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.”( 1990:19)
A common life as South Africans is Tutu’s expressed desire. “My appeal is ultimately directed to all of us, black and white together, to close the chapter of our past and to strive together for this beautiful and blessed land as the rainbow people of God.” (Tutu 1998:V1)
South Africans are indeed made up of several kinds of people but all the same…same but different, each carrying the burden of their own stories but united in their shared historical suffering – and hopeful of the possibilities of a future, this like the splendor of a rainbow beholds its onlookers with wonder.
There are no leprechauns at the end of the rainbow – nor pots of gold, in fact there is no possibility of an end at all.
But the legend of the leprechauns like the pot of gold, is a necessary one – it makes it possible for us to keep our faith, to rely on the human condition and to trust in the solidarity of peoples united by a history of suffering, oppression and the desire to create better lives and a fulfilled future.
Ours is not a story that ends with the inevitable “happy ever after” – having begun with the “once upon a time”. But time is what we need in South Africa.
Change, transformation, growing, adapting are a process, a function of time – and time is all we have in South Africa – because we have learnt so well to live in the present, in the unhistorical – in the moment, to seize the opportunity to survive and democracy has given us a new occasion.
The Berlin Mission and Challenges of South Africa Vol I, University of Chicago Press, London, Chicago (1993)
(1999) “Introduction” from Country of my Skull Three Rivers Press, New York (2000)
Country of my Skull Three Rivers Press, New York (2000)
(1844 – 1900) “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life” from Untimely Meditations translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge University Press (1997)
(1882)”What is a Nation?” translated Martin Thom from (ed) Nation and Narration Routledge London (1990)
Truth and Reconciliation Final Report, Vol I, South African Government Gazette (1998)
, Chair of the Africana Studies Department at New York University.
Sophiatown was an informal settlement just outside Johannesburg. In the 1950's it was a celebrated center where artists, educated professionals, academics and activists lived and met. It may be seen as a place and time akin to the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, with its complementary influences in the world of arts, culture and politics. The impact and legacy of Sophiatown is made more significant because it was destroyed and inhabitants forcibly removed by the white government to build housing for white civil servants. Inhabitants of the Sophiatown where moved to a township, Soweto (South Western Township) some 30 kms from the city. Triumf (meaning triumph in Afrikaans) was the new name given to the Sophiatown area, this location is only 12kms from the city center. Whites thought that their safety was at risk with a large black community living in such close proximity to the city.
"Apartheid" comes from the Afrikaans language meaning "apartness". The 1948 National Party victory formalized the term as a legislative practice. This meant separate development for all race groups and the restriction of living areas for blacks and whites. Rural reservations called bantustans, reserves and more commonly homelands were designated areas for black Africans. Prime Minister of South Africa Hendrik Verwoed from 1958 until his assassination in 1966 was known as the "Architect of Apartheid".
AWB: Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (the Afrikaans term, in English: the Afrikaner Resistance Movement). The leader is Eugene Terre'Blanche known internationally to head the hard line resistance against black rule in South Africa. They are described by many as neo-Nazi's and sport a symbol similar to the swastika but with three vertices. Their following increased in the wake of the 1980's National Party apartheid reformation. With numbers large enough under their banner they were able to negociate in the complex political equation in contemporary South Africa. However, a recent poll (the 1998 election) shows that the following is dwindling and the leadership was even less political clout.
This request could not be wholly denied based on the CODESA agreement. The Government of National Unity based on the constitution can not deny this minority group their right to representation, however it is clear that no land will be reserved for the AWB to create their own Volkstad (settlement), and they have been locked in an internal strife since 1994.
Ubuntu is a philosophy of humanism, emphasizing the link between the individual and the collective. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is responsible for rekindling the idea in the attempts to reconcile Christian theology with African values. "As Tutu's Ubuntu theology unfolds it gives new access to a new identity for South Africans; it appeals to ancient African concepts of the harmony between the individual and community which John Mbiti concludes as: 'I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.'" ( 1999:143)
This was a PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) demonstration against the pass laws. The Pass Laws required that all Africans carry a "pass document" when they moved from one area to another. It was necessary to carry this identification paper at all times, in instances where a person was not in possession of the "pass" they were immediately arrested and detained indefinitely. At this demonstration 67 people were killed and 186 injured. In the "new" South Africa a commemorative holiday called Shapeville Day celebrates the heroic actions of those resisting the policies of apartheid.
The Vlakplaas Five were five white police officers located at a police station near Pretoria. They participated in terrorist killings of blacks and particularly ANC members. These killings were not always police or official operations but often they conducted these killings as individuals or a "vigilante" group.
Published 1 April 2001
Original in English
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