Fifteen years after Apartheid Died

2009-06-26 00:00

THE impulse to move beyond race is tempting. But the message emanating loud and clear from the Facing the Archive conference held at Wits university last week was that South Africa’s rainbow nation is a pipe dream as long as so many people, mostly black, still feel aggrieved, traumatised and/or marginalised by their experiences of apartheid. Certainly, millions are still living with its impoverished material legacy. There is anger about the lack of reparation and social justice and there are many — black and white — who believe their individual stories of living under apartheid remain untold.

And yes, some whites are angry too. They feel discriminated against in the present and some are irked because they feel that all whites are painted simplistically and collectively as villains. However, many whites, it was frequently argued, are living in denial about their complicity in apartheid, about their concerted silence or their avowed ignorance. Others are still trying to come to terms with the apartheid inheritance of white guilt and shame. In the wake of these complex permutations, how do we define victim and perpetrator?

On the one hand, discussion at the conference was ­intensely theoretical and academic, dominated by the discourse of psychology but grounded visually by KZN photographer Cedric Nunn’s pictures of current-day ordinary South African scenes, and verbally by outpourings of personal experience, anecdote and, at times, raw emotion — from both delegates and speakers.

Like this appeal from a member of the audience: “Excuse my broken English; I see that English is the preferred language here … Please advise me how one is going to heal such a wound as mine? In the seventies I was a school child on a farm school. The school was closed because the white lady said it was too noisy. Today, her grandchildren are driving around in BMWs and are owning petrol stations and I’m a garden boy. Thirty-seven years later, that school building is still standing, not being used. How does one heal such a wound?”

The appeal substantiated many of the day’s theoretical postulations about the need for redress and the problem of lingering bitterness in spite of the end of formal apartheid. Coming as it did after a hard-hitting and well-received speech by Jody Kollapen, it did much to reinforce the ­Human Rights Commission chairman’s argument that both the TRC and the Constitution were overly geared towards reconciliation and the pacifying of minority (read white) fears, rather than a serious acknowledgement of and ­engagement with the detrimental effects of apartheid on the majority of South Africans, or the need for economic and social redress. Nowhere in the Constitution, said Kollapen, does the word apartheid appear.

He was echoed with different emphases by Ugandan-born public intellectual Mahmood Mamdani, also critical of aspects of the TRC process, like its focus on naming and shaming rather than understanding the cause of violence.

Coming as it did in the wake of Kempton Park — which produced an inclusive political “deal” aimed at political rather than criminal justice and since emulated by other conflicted countries — Mamdani said the TRC missed a historic opportunity to include the vast majority of South Africans in the category of “victim”, and not only those who were victims of a political process of torture and imprisonment.

In its focus solely on agency, on the perpetrators of atrocity, the TRC lost a chance to educate society and help it move beyond political justice towards social ­justice. It also lost the chance, said Mamdani, to show that South Africa’s neighbours also paid a huge price for apartheid — a collective ignorance which explains in part the rise of xenophobia.

“Can you blame individual South Africans if they see people coming across the border to ­partake in a feast they [believe] they had no part in preparing? No one told them otherwise.”

Mamdani said the archive could play a role in “de-exceptionalising” apartheid, which in fact shared many of the features of 20th-century colonialism, which manipulated categories of race and tribe for its own ends.

The need to ­understand the drivers of race was frequently raised, with the issue being aired earlier in the day by Education professor and University of Free State vice chancellor Jonathan Janse. He recalled a salient comment from the late Palestinian-born intellectual Edward Said, who stood up at at the ­racism conference in South Africa and said: “Please don’t tell me there’s racism.Tell me what sustains it.”

For Jansen, the blurring of the distinction between victim and perpetrator, oppressed versus oppressor, black ­versus white is the ultimate result of any intelligent ­examination of how knowledge is transmitted in society, particularly to those young white South Africans who, by virtue of their age, were not part of apartheid, but continue to reproduce the thinking of their parents, teachers and religious leaders.

Traditional categories were turned on their head again by young rights activist Andile ­Mngxitama who hails from a “counter-culture” group called Blackwash and delivered echoes of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy. “What do we want whites to do?” was his rhetorical but pertinent question. “At Blackwash we make the categorical statement that 1994 changed vok all. And we don’t want whites to wash our feet … South Africa is a neo-colonial reality, we’ve got a bunch of black guys [in power] copying whites … How do we speak of a racist system when the majority vote for a system that perpetuates it?”

Above: Pietermaritzburg Canoe Club on the banks of the Msunduzi River. The legendary Dusi race which co-exists cheek by jowl with the realities of life for the majority is now producing its first black participants from a development programme.

Photo: Cedric Nunn

Who is Professor Gillian Straker?

Paper: “I speak as a white; private memories public archives”.

Straker’s paper was frequently cited by delegates, partly because of its honesty (she admitted, as a product of apartheid, to having at times to consciously struggle with racism in herself) and partly because of its topical discussion of the way in which the institution of the domestic worker or nanny was (and still is) central to apartheid and its legacies.

A professor of clinical psychology, Straker’s central argument was that understanding racism at the level of the individual psyche is a first step towards defeating that racism. She said apartheid flourished because whites were emotionally detached from the effects of apartheid on blacks. Racial stratification was presented as a natural order and facilitated by “institutions” like the black female domestic worker or “nanny” which operated in intimate spaces and laid the foundation for an “easy acceptance” of first- and second-class citizenship as “normal”.

Such detachment, said Straker, was reinforced through the social shame and ostracism that attached to whites who treated black people as equals and disrupted the “natural” order.

It was only when she was in her twenties and the weight of resistance to apartheid during the seventies and eighties became too strong to ignore, that Straker realised there were other ways of seeing the world and that apartheid posed a challenge to her own humanity. For Straker, the

advantages of the archive are that the narratives will give an opportunity to understand the perspective of the other, or adopt a different perspective of the self.

Professors Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Gillian Straker at the Facing the Archives conference.

Photo: Sharon Dell

Who is Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela?

Paper: “Narrative, Voice, and Power: Exploring ­Regimes of Power in a Previously Whites-Only University in South Africa”

UCT professor of psychology Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who also served on the TRC’s human rights violations committee, argued that South Africans are relatively unmindful of how the past narratives shape the present. Institutions which are supposed to play a role in leading social transformation are no exception. She drew on two stories from her research — one involving herself — which she used to illustrate the creation of power and how it serves to deny, exclude, mystify the denial of academic promotion or advancement.

The first of her stories went as follows: During her first year at UCT she made a presentation to the ­general assembly of the United Nations in New York. On her return, a senior (white) colleague congratulated her, but delivered the following parting shot: “I wonder what will happen when the bubble bursts?” Gobodo-Madikizela interpreted this as an insensitive and potentially racist reflection on her career as tenuous and unstable.

Her second story involved an academic who was ­denied promotion to full professor. When the decision was challenged (in itself unacceptable), the academic received imprecise and contradictory messages. Because the person being denied promotion was black, she argued, it was inevitable that his past would play a role in how he perceived the current experiences.

More important than race, argued Gobodo-Madikizela, is the integrity of individuals, particularly those in positions of authority. She argued that stories of marginalisation by both blacks and whites can promote empathy across ­social locations and allow us to see the ­human face of the other.

“This is not happening in our universities,” she said. “We don’t know how to talk to one another … Until black and white acknowledge internal stories carried within and tell them, little will change.”

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What is the Apartheid Archive?

ACCORDING to Professor Garth Stevens (pictured), co-lead researcher of the Apartheid Archive project (a role he shares with fellow Wits psychologist Professor Norman Duncan), the project will foreground everyday experiences — not necessarily the dramatic brutality of apartheid, as was highlighted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nor the broad liberation narratives, but the “quotidian effects” of apartheid on ordinary lives.

The archive, he says, is premised on the idea that the past will continue to impinge on the present unless it is faced and addressed. “Identity and racial politics consistently emerge at flashpoints — we saw it during the recent elections. There may be some ­fatigue around race in South Africa, a strong injunctive to move forward in the service of an elusive idea of ‘the nation’, but we can’t — not without really ­engaging the past and its “pernicious effects” which continue to constrain the promises of a post-apartheid South Africa.

Currently, the archive comprises 100 narratives representing personal accounts of aspects of apartheid. With funds from the Carnegie Foundation, the plan is to collect about 5 000 stories over the next five years which will be located in Wits’s William Cullen library. Written by researchers and academics of all races, the pioneer narratives range from accounts by black professionals of white paternalism, to white childhood memories of the shame of privilege which expressed itself prosaically by the way certain pieces of household crockery (think tin mugs) were reserved for black workers.

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