They are burning my memory

2016-09-18 08:24
A plaque commemorating Jan Smuts set on fire by student protesters at UCT.  Picture: Ashleigh Furlong

A plaque commemorating Jan Smuts set on fire by student protesters at UCT. Picture: Ashleigh Furlong

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‘They are burning memory!”

This is what I said to myself in my unmediated, first reaction to the television coverage of protesting students burning pictures and portraits of historical figures and other commemorative objects at the University of Cape Town earlier this year.

By the time I had downloaded some images from the internet my reactions had become a little more mediated.

One of the images that struck me was that of a plaque commemorating Jan Smuts. The inscription was readable in the light of the surrounding flames about to consume it.

“Jan Christiaan Smuts,” it read, “1870–1950. ‘His life was gentle, and the Elements/ So mixt in him that Nature might stand up,/ And say to all the world: This was a man.’”

And then, in two languages: “Erected by the people of the Cape. Opgerig deur die mense van Kaapland.”

This grandeur of a Shakespearean recall – enlisted to commemorate the life of a man described as a British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher – was about to be consumed by hostile fire.

Erasing the past

Two historic periods seemed to stare each other down at that moment, some hundred metres or so below the pictorial icon of the Jameson Hall.

On the one hand was Jan Smuts, the second prime minister of South Africa – regardless of the complex history of his leadership – representing the legacy of a history of conquest which finally ended in 1994.

On the other hand was a nascent moment of another period of history in South Africa, which had begun in 1994 and was still confronting the unfolding complexities of it own beginnings.

The young of this second period circling the bonfire of their making were asking questions about Smuts, whose legacy they said retains a power still so overwhelming it seems to snuff out the possibilities of their own future.

They were unable “to breathe”, they were saying, and were suffocating in the legacy of “whiteness” whose grandeur to them was at that moment equal to the ashes that the plaque was about to become.

During the unfolding events it became clear that this incineration of collected “white”, “colonial” objects as embodiments of “whiteness”, was the onset of a declared process to “decolonise” the University of Cape Town.

They wanted to rid the campus of aspects of its legacy that made for a campus environment in which they, for whom that legacy had not been built and which they felt consigned them to silence, found it “impossible to breathe”.

Thus the pictorial memory of “whiteness”, an attribute of imperialism and colonialism in this part of the world, would symbolically and practically be devoured by fire and be reduced to ashes, its visual presence erased, and its historicity rendered invisible.

It remains to be seen whether total erasure is possible. Human memory exists independently of its physical representations.

You will find it in the realms of mind and imagination.

In my book, total erasure is not possible.

But what people do with such commemorative representations, setting them up, removing them, or destroying them, is part of the story of human history that from time to time will occur.

“Without memory it would virtually be impossible to learn,” wrote Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2001.

“We would not learn from experience, because experience is something remembered. I would forever have to start at the beginning, not realising that a hot stove invariably burns the hand placed on it. What I know is what I remember, and that helps to make me who I am.”

It is as if this godly man wrote these words for me to help me think through a difficult subject of our times.

So, when student activists drive onto a campus with tyres and litres of petrol and make a bonfire of paintings and photographs, what are the memories that made them who they were at that precise moment – the moment their fire consumed artefacts of people they deemed representatives of something disagreeable from the past?

What is it that they had learned and the context in which that learning took place, which led them to that moment of cognition in which they felt compelled to take the action they took?

What was the connection between who they were, or thought they were, and who they envisaged they would become after the act of burning?

What was the memory of the past, the representations of which were being burned, and what was the envisaged future that supposedly would rise from the ashes?

Being ‘black’

At the heart of the call for the “decolonisation” of UCT was a more elemental source of student disaffection: being “black” in a “white” world. The #RhodesMustFall movement projected “blackness” as a critical element in the discourse of protest against the “whiteness” of Rhodes’ legacy and the resilient effects of that legacy.

The “black body in pain” needed to be affirmed as human against its dehumanising depreciation as exploited labour over more than a century of captured service to Rhodes’ imperial, capitalist vision, and the rampant, racist view of the world that drove that vision through the elaborate justifications that it had set up.

The colonial economic system and its politics established and developed superior-inferior relationships between “white” and “black” humans. It is common to approach this relationship from the direction of its agency: “whites” oppressing “blacks”, or “civilised and humanised whites” oppressing “uncivilised, dehumanised blacks”.

In reality, the system dehumanised both. It is the less recognised dehumanisation of “whites” by the very system and order they had created, which it is the intention of the “decolonial” project to expose. It seeks to bring out into the open the “uncivilised” that is buried deeply in the heart of the self-proclaimed “civilised”.

It is this “uncivilised” part of the “civilised” self that has been historically projected onto other humans and declared as the essence of who they were.

The more the “civilised” saw the “uncivilised other”, the less they were able to see the “uncivilised” self inside of themselves.

It is to be assumed that part of the “decolonial” project is to change the attitudes of “whites” towards “blacks” by getting them to abandon racist attitudes and behaviour associated with them as a group.

This also has to do with the perception that South African “whites” did not give up much to make the post-apartheid reconciliation objective more successful.

“Whites” seemed to assume that the country they claim to have “built” is desirable as it is to everyone, including the millions of “blacks” that were on the receiving end of its being “built”.

So what is expected of the exposed, “civilised colonial”?

Is it remorse, guilt, identification as African, adopting Bafana Bafana, moving from the white suburbs to the townships, giving away a portion of their wealth in some way (whose accumulation is fundamentally questionable historically on moral and ethical grounds), adopting African names, learning African languages, “transferring their skills”…?

The list of what may be expected of them and what they could become, is long. But there is only one thing they could do that makes a lot of sense to me.

The list of things they could become is really their business, I cannot tell them how to conduct that business.

I would not expect of them to suffer what they did to me and to the likes of me: that is, to be told who to become, and to suffer laws passed that compel them into being something they had not been before.

But I do want to say that the pre-1994 social and personal sensibilities that the “whites” had evolved, is unsustainable and no longer achievable in the society that South Africa has been purposefully evolving into since 1994.

That I, as a “black” person, am part of the majority and the majority vision, which are committed to bringing that society into being; that this majority would be the universal norm of human presence in the new society; but that the substance and mechanisms of bringing that norm into being are supremely negotiable within the constitutional parameters of a new democracy and goes hand in hand with the human sensibility that accords moral legitimacy to that constitutional intention.

So, the co-creation of South Africa remains a vital constitutional imperative.

Perhaps this question of what is to be expected of “white” South Africans in a society where they are now the minority who previously had commanded overwhelming political, economic, and social power, can partly be answered by asking another question, possibly the ultimate question of agency in the still new South Africa: What is it that the “blacks” of South Africa have to become, or had become by default despite the odious intentions of their conquerors who had once conquered them?

The list is long.

They had to give up their social systems as they had lived them over generations before; they had to become workers, forced to disperse across the entire Southern African landscape as cheap labour.

In the process, they themselves became something they may not have envisaged: some spinoffs of considerable value for the future where they were compelled to live.

They learnt many languages; they intermarried massively over time, blurring cultural boundaries between them; they became locally cosmopolitan in ways that those that consigned them to servitude couldn’t; working in “white” people’s homes they got exposed, often in intimate proximity, to the “uncivilised” inside the “civilised”.

Then, as the economy grew out of the control of the “whites who built it”, the “blacks” inevitably became graduates, teachers, priests, lawyers, scientists, engineers, politicians, trade unionists, journalists, writers, artists, agriculturalists, pilots, professors, across the entire spectrum of state endeavour.

The question of who becomes what, after having been something they would rather no longer continue to be, can be both a simplistic and complex one.

It all suggests that South Africans were compelled at first to cooperate by a set of historical circumstances that had grown out of a system of structured compulsions, but later the energies released by such compulsions became too powerful to be contained by compulsion.

Those who were in the majority and yet violently controlled and compelled to work, and over time considerably wounded in body and soul, have been formally agitating for a new society since 1912.

Against this background, it is a critical and sobering lesson in state transformation to see how easily the visionary goals of a struggle that had evolved over a century could be forgotten within the short space of time since 1994; how the mechanisms that had maintained an oppressive society can be assimilated by those who were once oppressed, and be reproduced as a feature of political and social behaviour, such that the present generation’s relative failure to create a new society according to the visionary specifications that had driven that struggle for over a century is now blamed on the racism of an ageing oppressor who is no longer in power. Visionary agency is given up precisely at that moment that it should be affirmed and intensified.

‘Black pain’

Within this context, “black pain” in its current manifestations to me seems to be more an attribute of victimhood than of agency. To reclaim agency, different questions have to be asked. What is it that would constitute relief from “black pain”?

There has to be a notion of what “black well-being” would be and its supportive conditions, for this to be affirmed, so that blackness might flourish.

What would the features of the alternative identity and social value of “black well-being” be after the termination of “black pain”, when “whiteness” is vanquished and removed from the scene?

What is “black well-being”? In what kind of society can it flourish?

Who would bring that society about? Would there still be “blackness” after the demise of “whiteness”?

As the RhodesMustFall movement unfolded across the country, what I heard from it came across as familiar, but also different.

There was a resonance similar to what I and my generation said some 40 years ago. Yet, the resurgence of “black consciousness” in the third decade of a free and democratic South Africa confronted me with what I can only describe as an intergenerational dissonance, by which I mean that the terms of my disaffection with the current state of South Africa and a visionary retreat I sense as being underway, cannot be described in the terms of “black pain” that characterises the disaffections of a segment of the current generation of black students.

For a start, I could attempt a preliminary comparison.

If black pain is a current reality on our historically white campuses, 40 years ago my black pain was far less campus-based, and a result of a more generalised sense of being oppressed across the entire South African landscape.

The limitations imposed by apartheid on my movements were countered by an internal sense of expansiveness which I and many of my peers experienced as the very meaning of “black consciousness”.

It went hand in hand with the intention to achieve “black well-being” through achieving some autonomous agency in creating a society based on new relationships among ourselves and with all other people.

A “black” human being, externally depreciated in value, discovered profound inner value which sought to replace oppression with freedom for all. My fear of white people, no matter how economically or militarily powerful they may have been, was replaced by an enormous sense of inner possibility and power, which did not in any way minimise the brutal reality of what could happen to me, were I to fall into the hands of the white system, as Steve Biko did.

Despite the overt power of the racially oppressive system, there was something in me beyond its reach.

But something in the national environment today, articulated on some university campuses in 2016, appeared to have struck that inaccessible inner core of black students, and appears to have destabilised that core significantly to the extent that they have lost control over the emergent means of self-definition in an evolving, free and democratic social realm.

A “black” identity in such circumstances becomes a fundamentally reactive one, anchored in the residual agency of “whiteness”, real or imagined.

There was another reality to contend with.

The majority of black students in South African higher education 40 years ago were registered at historically black universities.

They were on campus as a manifestation of what it was required of “black” people to do, if they wanted a university education. They were required to apply to institutions specifically designated for them.

There, they were “black people” first and “black students” after. There, their colour was a given reality requiring little justification. There was something numerically normal about that situation.

Being “black” at a historically “black campus” was the norm.

Today, black students at the historically black universities are comparatively less vocal than blacks at historically white institutions.

The matter of numbers and the capacity to define space for self-expression seems a factor that requires greater understanding. Forty years later, in a country in black hands for 23 years, I feel far more in a “black” country than in a “white” country.

In that country, I do not feel compelled to be designated “black,” far less so to designate myself as black. This dissonance I feel, expresses itself starkly between a generation of black students who treasure the designation “black”, and an older generation who is less insistent on the designation and does not experience the same level of pressure to wear the label.

Perhaps this dissonance may have something to do with a certain kind of “groundedness” that is unevenly distributed across the range of environmental and psychological spaces.

It is about carrying your sense of confidence wherever you are, without the indignity of having to justify and fight for it.

It seems as if whenever we take on “racism” and it glares back at us from a pedestal, we remove our gaze from the predominant conditions of black lives where these really matter, requiring our tireless attention.

And the question that hangs in the air is: What is the fate of the townships where the overwhelming number of “black lives” are?

So, when the fires rage and consume school after school, clinic after clinic, train after train, bus after bus, library after library, and family lives seem precarious, and tender corruption takes away resources to improve “black lives”, it is as if black lives matter only when they are insulted or shot at by “white” people, not when they conduct their daily business of life, making culture, right there where the greatest national investment would change the quality of our democracy for the greatest common good for a long time into the future.


Of course, it would be a mistake to come to the view that anti-racism action is not an important aspect of social activism.

The challenge, however, is how to characterise this.

I choose to see it as part of how a “being-black-in-the-world” kind of norm, previously contained, is spreading beyond the townships into the nooks and crannies of the South African landscape and its social configurations.

That it encounters barriers, means that it is on the march. Bringing down the barriers is a function of a normative expansion that requires greater definition and a determination to set the conditions of its character in place.

It is a historic reality that has to be anticipated by all those South Africans who have been on the favoured side of history.

It is time to recognise that the norm of human presence in South Africa is “black”.

That recognition is central to understanding where real agency for shaping the future of South Africa is overwhelmingly located so that “blackness” becomes so normal it ceases to exist.

Public protest going forward

I would like to share what I remember most about the events at the Union Buildings on October 23 last year.

It was not the meeting between President Jacob Zuma and university vice-chancellors inside, or the scenes of thousands of student demonstrators outside; nor President Zuma’s promise that he would address the students, and that he did not do so; nor the impact of his failure, which saw crowds of protesters growing restive from waiting without end in the hot sun until they began to push down the perimeter fence that stood between them and the President.

It wsas not the teargas, nor helmed riot police behind transparent shields; nor the crack of gun shots, nor burning vehicles in the streets. What remains vividly in my mind is something far less dramatic, yet for that very reason, a treasure.

I remember the student activists who in the suddenly quiet, ghostly aftermath of a massive public protest, remained behind to clean up the war-zone streets. The cleaners of the aftermath pushed, pulled or lifted away debris that had been dragged onto the streets.

Why did they remain to clean up when they could have just walked away and put behind them the scene of their drama like many had done? It seemed they needed to perform a ritual act of conclusion that surprisingly invites quiet, yet potent pondering.

Their actions were a quiet speech conveying a message not only to the public, but I think even more vitally, to themselves.

They were activists, they seemed to say in their action, who never abandoned the power of reflection even in the heat of an intense public moment.

They actively cared not only about what they thought of themselves, but also what society thought of them.

Also to take home, is how at the end of what was a legitimate public action, we strive to constitute or reconstitute the social public space at the very moment that we feel impelled to question it. I think that the activists cleaning up the public space had another message.

Destruction, they seemed to remind us, is wired heavily into the workings of the colonial that is being assailed.

The assimilative nature of powerful oppressions can be reproduced by those who fight them, unwarily drawing them into a vicious cycle.

Those that have been victims of the single story, can easily lose the sense of the beauty they yearn for in their struggles, and give in to the ugliness of means gone so wrong that they too can impose the single story on others as a weapon of explaining them away, thus casting away the responsibility to know them.

Since the bonfire of artworks at UCT, fire as a weapon of protest has spread throughout the higher education system, and rekindled beyond.

And so, when the portraits of the “colonials” have been burnt, the timeless questions remain: What is the future of the townships?

What is the link between that future and schools and universities?

What is the link between Sandton and Alexandra?

When will the fires be tamed, and what will it take to tame them, so that new art work can be forged, to create new industries and forge inventions to meet the needs of a people in intimate dialogue with their new world?

What will it take to tame fire, and to remember that fire can be a companion to invention?

To remember that for fire to play its companion role requires a lot more thought from those who use it, a lot more investment in time and focus to understand the rich complexity of people living in the social realm, so that the challenge of thought and imagination stretching across time into the centuries ahead can be met head on?

So that South Africa can emerge as a successful democracy?

These are questions I leave you with.

This is an edited extract of a speech that Professor Ndebele delivered at the 10thAnnual Helen Joseph Lecture on Wednesday


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