Guest Column

Why the anti-apartheid narrative should include the untold stories of ordinary citizens

2018-04-24 07:46
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during a hearing into alleged human rights abuses, which formed part of the TRC hearings. PHOTO: Gallo Images / Oryx Media Archive

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during a hearing into alleged human rights abuses, which formed part of the TRC hearings. PHOTO: Gallo Images / Oryx Media Archive

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Friederike Bubenzer and Carolin Gomulia

"The raids happened so often, mostly early in the morning. My parents and us kids would line up in front of the house in our pyjamas, while the police searched the house again. One raid happened the night before my sister’s 17th birthday; her crown birthday. We were sleeping in anticipation of the next day when the police burst through the door; threw the birthday cake on the floor; wildly rummaged through our home and then left."

This is one of many stories a friend tells us while remembering the pervasiveness of the everyday humiliation and pain suffered by South Africans at the hand of the apartheid state.

In contrast to the horrific torture and unimaginable suffering experienced by anti-apartheid activists such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stories like this one appear ordinary and minor. Their unspectacular nature renders them pale in comparison, unworthy of the public realm.

Over the last two weeks we have mourned, honoured and remembered Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Reflecting on Winnie's life and sacrifices have brought to the fore how much the daily suffering of ordinary South Africans has been silenced in the South African apartheid narrative.

While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created some space for laying bare the brutality and callousness of the system and how it impacted on the citizenry, the post-apartheid era has created too little opportunities for ordinary South Africans' day-to-day experiences of living in apartheid South Africa to be told, acknowledged and honoured. 

Malegapuru Makgoba summarised it well in a City Press article (April 15, 2018), in which he makes reference to the TRC hearings: 

"Perhaps what did not come through [in this hearing] was how brutal the system of apartheid was, that children were running away from homes and police across the country. Families were being dismantled piecemeal and people brutalised physically and psychologically. The resultant pathology and uncalculated human damage that was inflicted remains one of the unspoken 'holocausts' of this century. Judgement, morals, values and culture in society were being systematically eroded and clouded by the incipient and corrosive nature of the apartheid system."

Like most South Africans, our friend does not talk about his experiences much. He knows that he is just one of millions of South Africans who live with the memory of the daily humiliation, degradation and violence that was meted out on people by the apartheid state. He is averse to exceptionalism and is not looking for struggle credentials which are so often associated with sharing these painful personal memories.

It is a travesty that Winnie's immense sacrifice during her lifetime has only really been acknowledged and honoured after her death. And even now, we are just beginning to understand the magnitude of her suffering, the scale of her sacrifice and the legacy of her burden. Despite the iconic status she earned amongst South Africans, and women in particular, her contribution to the liberation struggle remains under-recognised and silenced.

Throughout her lifetime, Winnie represented millions of silenced women, hers was the story of a struggle hero who never stopped fighting for the marginalised, the poor and the many people who suffered on a daily basis. In honouring her legacy, let’s commit ourselves to highlighting and understanding how the suffering of ordinary citizens during apartheid continues to shape contemporary South Africa. 

The narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle centres around heroes and villains. They are the ones who are celebrated or remembered. But what about the young man who, while walking home from buying bread in a small town, was stopped by the police, beaten up because he was black, and then had to resume his everyday life, without justice, without accountability? What about the little coloured girl who heard her father being verbally abused by his white employer? What about the mother of four whose children had to go hungry night after night because her husband-the sole breadwinner- was detained without trial for months without end? 

As President Cyril Ramaphosa said during his eulogy for Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: "We must also recognise our own wounds, we must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are so easily prone to anger and to violence… Her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to. It's only when you experience real pain yourself that you can recognise it in others and offer comfort and healing. We have seen and touched those wounds, it is now time to heal the wounds that we have seen, the wounds that were inflicted on all of us, on Mama Winnie in the past." 

Where does this silencing leave the majority of South Africans? We challenge civil society, media and all key stakeholders in society, to provide platforms for the telling of stories of ordinary South Africans. Let’s create spaces in our homes, our boardrooms, our churches and our community centres to bring to the fore the untold stories of destroyed birthday cakes, beaten-up boys, disillusioned girls and hopeless mothers.

Let's ensure that South Africa's memory archives are filled not only with the spectacular and the extraordinary but that ample space is created for acknowledging, remembering and documenting the pain and suffering experienced by ordinary South Africans. Only in this way can we prevent the continuation of what Makgoba calls the 'systematic erosion of humanity building on previous 300 years of dehumanisation of colonialism'.

- Friederike Bubenzer and Carolin Gomulia both work at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. 

Read more on:    winnie madikizela-mandela  |  apartheid


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