December is a time when many of us Black migrants and labourers return to our homelands. Our homecoming brings the opportunity to reconnect with our families and friends and, at times, with our ancestors by engaging in cultural ceremonies.
However, during my recent time at home in Ezibeleni kuKomani political memories and histories were re-remembered and retold. My brother excavated a suppressed aspect of our family’s and community’s histories, namely that various houses in our neighbourhood were used to store weapons for Umkhonto weSizwe, including a shack at the back of our four-roomed home; a few teachers worked as undercover operatives for the liberation movement; street committees were used for carving out mobilisation strategies; and he was part of a group of young men trained for potential war.
Many of these young men did not attend school; for six years and more in the late 1980s and early 1990s they engaged in political training in spaces like graveyards to avoid detection. They would also participate in political actions to defy and weaken the apartheid state.
Today, many of these young men occupy the taverns of Ezibeleni, not having an education or any form of employment. Alcohol has become a coping mechanism to deal with the embodied trauma and anxiety that emanates from having been an anti-apartheid activist.
The reality is that their bodies are no longer seen as useful, and their current struggles are relegated to the margins of our public memory. Their daily existence is a reminder of Wole Soyinka’s The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness lecture where he notes that “the victims are alive and in need of rehabilitation while their violators – as a recognisable group – pursue their privileged existence, secure in their spoils of a sordid history”.
This political history and memory, which speaks to our present, is worth recording.
The memories that my family shared with me came in glimpses; they are not complete truths of the collective histories and struggles of my community. And these tales may not be legitimised in hegemonic forms of public memory. Artist and academic Nkiru Nzegwu helps us understand the reason for this: “We are encouraged to remember and when we do we find that memory is viewed as unreliable. History is equated to textual documentation, a process that robs us of our memory that has carefully been preserved in modes that do not easily give up the story.”
Pumla Gqola, Black Feminist scholar and activist, affirms this argument and maintains that to begin to untangle the “fragments” of slave memory, for instance, “requires a multilayered approach”.
Gqola and Nzegwu’s writings further find relevance in relation to Nthabiseng Motsemme’s work on the SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She notes that we need to break free from the idea of viewing “memory as an object” and furthermore, to “embrace the notion that it includes embodied practices found in the person next to us in everyday life”. Therefore, conversations with our siblings and elders in our communities may assist us on the path to uncovering the hidden histories of the liberation struggle; histories and memories which are excluded from our official archives and records.
The significance of re-remembering our history is important for the present, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall echoes: “The past continues to speak to us”; it speaks to us in our material reality where the faces of poverty continue to be Black, while two white men own the same wealth as the bottom half of the population, as Oxfam reports.
Thus, archiving our history which is embodied in our present reality finds relevance in our present quest to decolonise the country. This venture is crucial because the liberation struggle is evoked in ways that include and exclude. Hierarchies are reinforced to erase the efforts of ordinary Black South Africans who contributed to the end of apartheid. We live in a country where the politics of memory is contested, a post-apartheid dispensation which has altered our political history and memory in what Black Feminist economist Liepollo Pheko calls “anti-historical” and “anti-memory”. This is characterised by depoliticised and individualised histories of the liberation struggles in order to advance a myth of the “rainbow nation” and the narrative of the ANC as our only “political saviour”.
Furthermore, in recent conversations on #FeesMustFall with Black people, some have said: “niyasilwelwa” (“you are fighting for us”), accompanied with words of encouragement to continue the struggle for free decolonised education. However, the history I learnt of in Ezibeleni has re-emphasised my belief that a fight for justice will be a collective one – our churches, teachers, community members will have to participate in various ways. Therefore, the retelling of this history challenges the confines of who and what an activist can be. There’s an urgent need to affirm the histories and memories of individuals and communities whose contributions have been hidden. Perhaps the spread of this history and public memory will result in more communities facing injustices today, realising that they come from a lineage of collective struggle. These narratives may empower our communities in present collective struggles for free education, gender justice and the return of black people’s stolen land. Perhaps it may fuel our burning hopes for justice.
In our various small towns and villages, it’s important for us to recognise that we come from a lineage of “worthy ancestors”, as Xolela Mangcu terms it. We too can become worthy ancestors in the fight to guarantee a just future for black people.
Dlakavu is a student
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