Lest we forget

2010-10-27 00:00

I HOPE this book will sell well. It found its way onto my desk at an opportune moment, just after the recent conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Kairos Document, the struggle context that this book recalls. One of the highlights of the gathering was the dialogue between the “struggle generation” of liberation theologians, many of whom helped draft the Kairos Document, and the up-and-coming “post-94 generation”. One of the central issues in the debates was: “What is the relevance of the past for the present and the future?”

Professor Itumeleng Mosala reminded participants that liberation theology was the gift of the struggle to the church, not the church to the struggle, pointing to the central importance of historical context. I was reminded of this when one of my colleagues groaned at the sight of this book and said something like: “Not another bush war memoir. There’ve been hundreds already.”

There have indeed been many books about South Africa’s apartheid past and there will probably be many more in future, but that doesn’t detract from their importance. As Professor Farid Esack, the prominent Muslim theologian, said: “We must remember the past so that we make the same mistakes again only once.”

The Jewish liberation theologian, Professor Marc Ellis from the United States, succinctly captured a possible answer to this debate when he said: “The memory of suffering should be kept alive but not used against others. The question is, what do we do with memory?”

Opening the book, with its stark black- and-white images, was a very déjà vu experience. It reminded me of all the documentary photographic books I’ve seen over the years of the world’s all-too-many conflicts. In particular, it recalls the images of German concentration camps and holocaust atrocities. The horror seems to be all the more intense because the photos are black and white, an unusual medium these days of intense, saturated colour.

Memories like those recorded by this book should be kept alive to remind current and future generations of humankind’s capacity for evil and inhumanity. If we are brave enough to look inside ourselves, we are all capable of unspeakable horror. If we are tempted to think that it is only “others” who commit inhumanities like those recorded here, a book like this serves as a salutary reminder of that ugly truth.

Works like this are also important because they remind current and future generations of how precious our hard-won freedoms are. They are a vital reminder of just how costly things that we take for granted are, things that may seem like abstract concepts: racial equality, political freedom and the right to vote, for example. For those who fought for them, they were neither abstract nor cheap.

Having grown up with the generation of men who appear in these photographs as fresh-faced youngsters, this book is emotive. It reminds me of those who died, those whose psyches are haunted by what they did and saw, and those who refused to be complicit in such things and paid the price for their refusal. Observing the posturing and shenanigans going on in the current halls of power, I am chilled by the thought that it would be all too easy to slide back into the kind of fascist tyranny represented by the images in this work.

This book and others like it should be mandatory reading for all of us and should be in public, university and school libraries, as well as private homes across the land. We need all the reminders we can get, “lest we forget”.

BUSH OF GHOSTS

Life and war in Namibia 1986-90

John Liebenberg and Patricia Hayes

Umuzi

THIS book documents the border war in Namibia and that nation’s subsequent journey to independence. Liebenberg first went to Namibia as a conscript in 1976. He returned in 1985 as a photographer for the Namibian newspaper. He took photos for “the first draft of history”, as newspapers have been called, capturing all the participants in that history alike: SA defence force, People’s Liberation Army guerrillas and civilians.

The text includes an insightful essay by Hayes contextualising the images and conversations between her and Liebenberg as they worked through the thousands of negatives in his archive. There are also detailed notes about each photograph.

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