Sello Hatang | A society that poisons its future

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Family members comfort each other after nine young men were set alight during a gruesome mob attack in Zandspruit.
Family members comfort each other after nine young men were set alight during a gruesome mob attack in Zandspruit.

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We remain a profoundly wounded society, and because of that we are a society which continues to wound itself. A society that poisons its future by exposing its children to more trauma.

I was trained as a heritage practitioner and archivist, and spent a large part of my career doing what I call memory work. It is my conviction that, if a society doesn’t reckon with its pasts, then its pasts will reckon with it.

It seems clear now that, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and many other interventions, South Africa is being haunted by pasts that have not been adequately addressed.

We remain a profoundly wounded society, and, because of that, we are a society that continues to wound itself; a society that poisons its future by exposing its children to more trauma.

It is clear now that the final decade of the apartheid era – 1984 to 1994 – left South Africa’s social fabric in tatters. Multiple subsequent experiments with reconciliation, restoration, reparation and forgiveness failed to deliver the healing we needed so badly.

READ: Mondli Makhanya | Secret deal with apartheid killers?

How do we reckon with the past when we are constantly being confronted by new violations and new layers of wounding?

Some individuals, some families and some communities found healing. But not nearly on the scale that we needed.

Of course, healing must involve an ability to ultimately forget the pain of violation as a continuing lived experience.

However, we can’t begin to forget such pain until we have done what I call the difficult memory work.

How do we reckon with the past when we are constantly being confronted by new violations and new layers of wounding?

The fires that recently burnt to death the eight youngsters in Zandspruit, Johannesburg, are a warning that our society will burn again if we do not address these challenges.

Arguably, South Africa started well after 1994 in making a liberatory future by working actively with the past. There was a commitment to deal with past trauma and current woundedness. But we didn’t finish what we started. So now we sit with too much “unfinished business”.

There can be no healing without comprehensive and effective processes of reparation, restoration and redistribution. Worse, the levels of rage will grow and grow. So will the levels of violence.

What we call “the rule of law” will increasingly be just a phrase rather than a lived reality.

The violence of the Zandspruit lynchings brought memories of the necklacings in the 1980s and 1990s flooding back to me. I am haunted by those memories. And by our post-1994 failures. And by a clutch of questions for which there are no easy answers.

How do we address Zandspruit’s trauma? Should we memorialise what happened, so that we do not forget? So that we are reminded of what we do not want our society to consider as normal? Do we need such signals or signposts all over our country to assist in the work of healing? What about the families and the communities who just wish to forget? Is there a right to forget?

A few days ago, just after the horror of Zandspruit, I woke up to news of two incidents at the polar opposites of our country’s reality of crime.

One family in my area posted about an incident that had happened in the early hours of the morning, when their home was invaded and their possessions taken.

The assumption that crime affects mainly the elite is proven inaccurate over and over again. The woundedness of our society affects everyone. I’m feeling troubled. We should all be feeling troubled as citizens. So many violations of the past still causing pain. So many violations every day.

Just as community members were consoling this family, another person wrote about their gardener, who had been walking to work when a car stopped next to him, and the men inside jumped out and took his wallet, jacket and cellphone.

They then beat him up before they left. What trauma for this man, someone who is just surviving day to day! What trauma for this family, who are well-to-do and can afford sophisticated security systems.

Polar opposites in many ways, yet sharing trauma, damage and the experience of criminal violence and lack of the rule of law.

The assumption that crime affects mainly the elite is proven inaccurate over and over again. The woundedness of our society affects everyone. I’m feeling troubled. We should all be feeling troubled as citizens. So many violations of the past still causing pain. So many violations every day. So much rage. And we know now from science that trauma is passed on in the genes from one generation to another. How do we stop the cycles and the inheritances of violence? What do we do with what happened in Zandspruit?

I understand the need many people have for revenge, especially in contexts where the criminal justice system is not working for most of our communities.

How does one move on, find reconciliation or even think about forgiveness, when your family member has been burnt alive publicly?

What yardstick do you use for judging people who have “dealt with” those seen to be criminals who have been persecuting the community with impunity? How do we treat those who go all out to destroy those they consider to be the enemy while breaking all laws in the process?

I want to believe in forgiveness. But perhaps the Algeria-born thinker Jacques Derrida was right when he argued that forgiveness is impossible. Because, on the one hand, while a person has the right to forgive another for violating them, who has the right to forgive the act itself? For the act is a violation of us all.

READ: Editorial | An eye for an eye is a crime

On the other hand, forgiveness hinges on the capacity to forget. But forgetting is always provisional. The one wishing to forget might wake up tomorrow and experience a trigger that brings back active remembrance of all the pain and terror of violation.

And that might lead them to withdraw their forgiveness.

I am haunted by these thoughts. But I’m encouraged by the knowledge that we have achieved the impossible as a country.

We are a country of dreamers who work hard on those dreams. We have been led by the ancestor of hope, Nelson Mandela, who demonstrated that dreams and hopes alone are not enough.

It is in our hands to help build a society that’s bonded by the common belief in humanity.

Hatang is the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation


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