Mending with memory

2011-05-12 00:00

IN giving last week’s 18th Alan Paton lecture, titled “Madiba, Memory and the Work of Justice”, Verne Harris examined the role of memory in the post-apartheid era of Paton’s “beloved country”.

Harris, head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Mandela’s archivist since 2004, said that the post-apartheid period has seen a wealth of memory work. This includes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the creation of new museums and archives, a burgeoning heritage industry, new history curricula for schools, the location of the remains of people murdered by the apartheid state, as well as information gathered during the land-reform process.

Much of this memory work has been influenced by ideas of “transitional justice”, which hold that dealing with oppressive pasts is necessary for the building of democratic futures.

However, despite such memory work, our society remains severely damaged, says Harris. “Old fissures remain resilient. New ones are emerging. The social fabric is being unravelled further by growing disparities between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, by rampant corruption, creaking service-delivery infrastructure, a failure of leadership at many levels, alienation from political processes, xenophobia, what I call the re-racialisation of discourse, unacceptable levels of crime, domestic violence, infant mortality, HIV infection, illiteracy, unemployment, and so on.”

Harris believes that the time has come for an assessment of post-apartheid memory work. “Has it been too superficial? Have we only scratched the surface of our country’s pain and alienation? Does the really hard work — the work which truly embraces damage and offers healing — remain to be done? To what extent are the failures of the post-apartheid project failures of memory?”

Harris explored five key attributes of post-apartheid memory work which also provide a critique of the post-apartheid project’s reliance on two interlinked figures or symbols: “the New South Africa” and “Nelson Mandela”.

The first attribute was that of “metanarrative”, of creating the new “big explanatory story”. Post-1994 we have created the story of a noble struggle (“the struggle”) against oppression, says Harris, a story of heroes and heroines versus villains, of truth and reconciliation, of nation-building, and of reconstruction and development. While not negating that story, Harris says that it has been told at the expense of other stories that don’t fit into that picture.

A second attribute of post-apartheid memory work is that of opacity, says Harris. Apartheid saw much of South African history “erased, hidden or marginalised”. Since then, concepts such as “transparency”, “freedom of information” and “full disclosure” have been much bandied about.

“Yet South Africa in the era of democracy has proved to be a less than fertile environment for these concepts and values,” says Harris.

“Cultures of opacity remain resilient. Our memory work is hampered by secrets, taboos, disavowals and lies. The silences are often deafening.” This culture of opacity flows out of the nature of our transition to democracy — “not a revolution, but a protracted negotiated settlement, during which selective destruction of memory resources took place and more or less secret deals were made.”

Thirdly, there is the assumption that remembering brings healing. “But what if remembering is just as likely to reopen old wounds?” asks Harris. “What if the majority of the thousands of South Africans who went to the TRC to testify to abuse and damage have not found healing from their ‘TRC experience’?”

Harris says that the damage wrought by our history has been underestimated. “I would suggest that we were seduced by the possibility of a ‘quick-fix’ — ‘Madiba magic’ would sprinkle salve on our wounds and we would emerge, quickly, as reconstructed ‘new South Africans’.”

Fourthly, most of South Africa’s post-apartheid memory work has been geared to promoting reconciliation but often at the price of avoiding uncomfortable truths. “Reconciliation is about hammering out a practical way forward, accommodating harsh realities and negotiating ways of learning simply to get on together,” says Harris.

In the nineties, a modus operandi was devised as a springboard for reconcilation involving amnesty for human-rights perpetrators offering full disclosure, reparations for victims of human rights violations, and prosecution for perpetrators failing to secure amnesty. “A flawed springboard as it turned out,” says Harris. “Very little ‘full disclosure’ was secured. Reparations were inadequate and fiercely contested. And prosecution was not forthcoming.

“We have paid a heavy price for reconciliation’s consequent crisis of legitimacy. A crisis deepened by perceptions that the reconciliation project has been used to smooth the replacement of one elite by another. Liberation has reached too small a number of South Africans to be an enduring energy of unification. The notion of a South Africa belonging to all who live in it seems now to be an impossible ideal.”

The fifth attribute is learning, learning based on the idea that the study of history is about learning from the mistakes of that past. “I’ve been studying history all my adult life,” says Harris, “and the one sure thing I’ve learnt is that societies hardly ever learn from the mistakes of their pasts.”

Harris says it is imperative to befriend the mistakes of South Africa’s past. “I didn’t say ‘learn from them’. Befriend them ... befriending our mistakes is the work of memory.”

So how do we address these issues? How do we rescue the post-apartheid reconciliation project? How do we befriend the mistakes of our pasts? How do we grow up as a nation? How do we learn to live without Mandela? While Harris didn’t have answers to these questions, he says it is “critical that we be asking them, engaging them, framing our memory work in relation to them”.

Especially critical for an organisation like the one Harris heads combining the name of Mandela with the concept of memory. “I have no doubt that had Mandela been younger at the advent of the post-apartheid transition, he would have vigorously and publicly contested his elevation to the status of icon, even saint,” says Harris, backing up this belief with a quotation from a first draft of what was intended to be a sequel to Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

“A younger Mandela would also have summoned his energy against patronage, protection and graft,” says Harris, quoting again from the same manuscript: “But history never stops to play tricks with seasoned and world-famous freedom fighters. Frequently erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed, and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelmed them. By amassing vast personal wealth, and by betraying the noble objectives which made them famous, they virtually deserted the masses of the people and joined the former oppressors ...”

Mandela has said repeatedly in recent years: “It is, now, in your hands.”

“It is in our hands to engage memory work as fundamental to the success of the post-apartheid project,” says Harris. “It is in our hands to engage rather than avoid the politics of memory.”

VERNE Harris is head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and has been Nelson Mandela’s archivist since 2004.

“At the foundation we are about memory, not collecting stuff,” says Harris. “We are not about creating the equivalent of a United States presidential library. Our objective is to create a database of all the Mandela materials around the world.”

Harris has met frequently with Mandela to discuss and check items. “These personal interactions are crucial,” he says. “We have had numerous discussions, but Madiba often emphasises ‘do not focus on me as an individual’ and he’s named other people he wants included. Robert Sobuwke is one of them.”

Mandela has also been open regarding material by and about him that can be accessed. “‘You do not need to protect me’ he once told me,” says Harris.

Neither does Mandela or the foundation adhere to a particular view of Mandela, a particular version or image. Harris cites the book Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, for which he led the editorial team. “It’s not constructed to a particular orthodoxy,” says Harris.

“It contains material that is significant and revealing, including some very personal items — there is a letter concerning an argument with Graça about Winnie, for example. We asked if it was okay to include this and some other sensitive items. Not a single document was stopped.”

Who does Mandela — the man, the politician, the image, the icon — belong to? His hospitalisation earlier this year threw this question into sharp relief. “Our approach as an institution is that Mandela doesn’t belong to any one family, to any one party, to any one country,” says Harris. “But contestation is desirable. We all have a voice, we all have a claim.”

Harris says he has the “best of jobs and the worst of jobs” when asked what it is like to have such frequent personal contact with Mandela. “My and the foundation team’s exposure to a historical figure, to a human being, to a symbol of the new South Africa we are trying to bring about is unprecedented. It is deeply, profoundly moving.

“But the other side of the coin is seeing Mandela exploited by people and institutions. That is painful to watch. One day I realised that Madiba is still a prisoner. He said to me once: ‘you are my gaolers now’.”

• Check the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s website


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