Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Decolonizing a Fragmented Memory: The Youth in Post-Apartheid South Africa

It is with more than mild irritation that I recently read through Judith February’s latest opinion piece in the Daily Maverick, entitled "A burning desire: To learn from the past or destroy the present?" Aside from the didactic, patronising tone of the article, her previous piece on the students so completely missed the mark, and so thoroughly underestimated the intelligence of the students, that it might have seemed obvious that continuing her critique in the same tone would be bound to annoy more than it educates.

Her previous piece, entitled “Why is the state not a target of student protests?" was written on the 20th of October 2015. It adopted a haughty tone towards the students, and presumed to lecture them on where to direct the protests that they themselves had successfully organised and brought to the forefront of public attention. The very next day (21st October 2015) the students marched to the gates of parliament and occupied the parliamentary precinct, effectively relegating her article to the dustbin of history, the short-lived usefulness of its analysis lasting all but a day. I therefore expected that she would offer a more nuanced analysis in this article, and exhibit a great deal more humility than she previously displayed towards the complexity of the subject.

Perhaps in her conceit, she may have awarded herself a measure of credit for the “refocusing” of student action on government and the state, but if that were the case she would be mistaken, for the youth of today are far more informed about their history, as well as their current condition, than many of the activists and political elite of the last century appreciate. There has been a steady stream of such articles and opinion pieces emerging from established South African media outlets; where the emphasis is on ruing the condition of the youth of today, who don’t ‘know’ or ‘understand’ their history well enough to take political action in the public realm.

In her new piece, February thoughtlessly invoked now familiar – if overused – props and tropes in her critique of the student movement. It begins by alluding to their lack of uncritical acceptance and adoration of Nelson Mandela as evidence of their ignorance of their good fortune for having such a powerful symbolic leader. It then delves into some painful history (i.e. District 6) and venerates the courage and sensitivity of those who creatively brought those stories back into the public imagination and conversation during the Apartheid era (i.e. David Kramer and Taliep Pieterson). Lastly, and most tellingly, she raised the burning of a painting of Molly Blackburn (“who worked closely with Mathews Goniwe in Lingelihle township at Cradock on issue of rent restructuring”) as evidence of “ignorance of our past”. Violence, she reminds us, cannot become the “new order of things”.

Yet, the laments over burnt paintings has now become a familiar, and overused refrain. As was the case with the burnt painting of a black painter, Keresemose Richard Baholo, the chattering classes were quick to pounce upon it as evidence of the students' ignorance. However, Baholo himself quickly dismissed this blatant and opportunistic hijacking of events – and the deluded middle class pretensions associated with it – by coming out in support of the students. Likewise, who is to say that Nelson Mandela and Taliep Pieterson themselves, were they alive today, may not prove equally sympathetic to the plight of the youth in South Africa and the student activists who have brought it to the fore. So easily forgotten these days, is that Nelson Mandela was kept in prison for much longer than he could have been because he refused to “renounce violence”, as was demanded of him by PW Botha’s apartheid government.  

Ironically, however, Judith February frames her argument in terms of the “risk of repeating apartheid’s erasure of knowledge and memory”. So it is perhaps correct to assume that she – as well as the very many commentators and who have offered their opinions on the student protests – are not entirely unaware of the complexities of history and memory, especially in the post-Apartheid context in South Africa. 

However, and surprisingly, what they all seem to miss – in their lengthy monologues and diatribes – is how South African history has been constructed in the post-Apartheid dispensation. History, as it is commonly understood and experienced in South Africa today, is fragmented, even schizophrenic in nature. It is fragmented because it was largely sacrificed for a nation-building narrative that put cosmetic change and short term stability (nay; meta-stability) ahead of real, meaningful healing and restitution.

This is not just a casual statement. It is evidenced in the ultra-slow pace of land reclamations, and the fact that after 21 years, out of the 400 cases that were allocated for investigation and prosecution for apartheid crimes only 3 have been taken to the courts. These are but two ‘hard’ examples of the lack of meaningful engagement with our history as South Africans. There are also myriad ‘soft’ examples of how the past is misconstrued in order to serve the purposes of various societal groups. One of the most difficult ones to stomach, was the overriding perspective of white Afrikaners – early on in the transition to democracy – that there was some level of equivalence between the ANC as a liberation movement, and the National Party apartheid government; a narrative that posed both as “equally misguided”. Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations; it cannot be compared in any reasonable sense with the politics of liberation movements in South Africa. 

The chances for real and meaningful change to unfold in South Africa's transition to democracy were diminished by the extension and perpetuation of the rainbow-nation, nation-building narrative far beyond its short term usefulness, in service of maintaining a status quo - which in a sense, is a of security of the known - in order to retain a sense of consistency, familiarity and stability. We were, in the majority, all complicit in this trade-off, and failed to challenge it adequately because the appearance of stability had engendered us with the optimism that is associated with the possibility of benefiting from the opportunity of an ensured continuity.   

So it is difficult to understand why our activists, struggle heroes and opportunists are so surprised at the very disconnect with history that they introduced and perpetuated. They appear to metaphorically throw their hands up in frustration in every article about this emerging, 'errant' youth. What is clear, is that they haven’t bothered to actually listen to what the students and their leaders have to say.

If they had listened, they would perhaps have a more nuanced and insightful appreciation of the understanding that the youth and student movement have of the current condition of South African society and its key institutions, and how that condition is directly linked to South African history, and extends not just into the Apartheid era, but all the way back into the colonial era. That is why the students are concerned with how to “decolonise” the institutions of higher education, as one of the starting points for the transformation of society as a whole.

They are more concerned with how they experience that history in the present, than they are with constructing narratives with precise chronologies solely for the purposes of understanding. This is because they are concerned, not just with understanding our society, but acting upon it. Residing in the space of action requires a great deal more than simply engaging with our history as artifactual. It requires engaging with how the past manifests in the present, as it is how that past emerges – in myriad, everyday interactions – which are both fragmented and distributed, that remains primarily responsible for holding back and preventing the transformation of South African society as a whole.

That is, the youth of today are concerned with a much more elusive target – one which resides in the system – that is; the past that shadows us through every moment of the present, but which is so deeply and thoughtlessly ingrained that it escapes our attention and ability to grapple with it effectively. It is distributed, and hence presents a more difficult challenge, as it is only encountered in the unstructured, fragmented experience of everyday life. It is difficult to “hold in ones hands” so to speak.

This is a subject that I have personally struggled with for many years. I was twenty years old in 1994, and have lived equal amounts of time under Apartheid as in a free South Africa. I found adjusting to the new realities of a post-Apartheid dispensation extremely difficult, and am acutely aware that many of my generation, and the next, struggle equally with assimilating and acting effectively on the fraught history that we have inherited in post-Apartheid and post-colonial South Africa. I hence laboured over the subject in my own writing in order to understand what it meant for our future.

Some of the answers to my questions are now being provided by the youth of today. Under the banner of “decolonisation” the youth of today are attempting to seek out ways of taking action within South African society to transform it through a different process than was undertaken early in the post-1994 dispensation. Their approach is in contrast to it, and hence requires a different set of processes to actualise.

First and foremost, they are building awareness of a condition that is entirely and unmistakeably visible to them, in response to their frustration at a society that tends to sweep difficult and agonistic engagements under the carpet in service of maintaining the prevailing top-down rainbow-nation narrative. That is, the government-led rainbow nation narrative, that was intended as a project for nation-building, is today holding back open and frank exchange on the lack of transformation, and the everyday difficulties of encountering systemic privilege, racism, sexism and prejudice in South African society.

Perhaps it is to be expected that the fossils of yesteryear would be more obsessed with the artifacts of history rather than how that history manifests in the present i.e. how it is experienced by the youth as they encounter a society that is in denial about the very obvious shortcomings of its current condition. It’s all fine and well to adopt Oxbridge postures and deliver lectures on the lessons of history in order to impress your peers, but it is quite another thing to attempt to engage seriously with students and the youth, and the key issues that they are boldly attempting to tackle in our society.

Seizing upon a minority of misguided actions to launch into repetitive – and frankly over-rehearsed – critiques of the student movement, without actually engaging them or their thought processes with keen interest, serves no purpose other than to reinforce the establishment that the new elite have successfully occupied, upheld and gained substantial benefits from. Indeed, what is telling, is how scarcely any criticism or similar “advice” is directed at academics, the institutions of higher learning and government itself. This, more than anything, lies in stark contrast to the detailed preachy advisories that have been directed at the students, and says everything we need to know about what has motivated the aging products of the 20th Century to take to the pulpit once again.

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