A manipulative form of nationalism that has been sanctioned over the past twenty years in neo-colonial South Africa seems determined to reconstruct a nation of disfigured memories and half-truths. Citizens must resist this manufactured nation building characterized by dispossession, coercive silencing and constant un-remembering.
September offered South Africa yet another occasion to pore over shared national heritage, contested memories and the construction of meaning. Like March 21, June 16 and the many dates in between, it was another missed opportunity to advance a truthful discourse on ownership of both the past and the present. The politics and ethics of memory present an ongoing tension for countries such as ours, which are emerging from a period of deeply fragmented recollections of what was and was not. Andre Brink suggests that: “the best we can do is to fabricate metaphors – that is, tell stories – in which, not history, but imaginings of history are invented.” Although deeply dissatisfactory, this seems to be the narrative pursued by Official Historydom.
South Africa is not the only country that is contending with heritage as a site of political battles. Memory is an act of defiance particularly because erasure is an instinct of conquest. Cultural identity and truthful interpretation of the past are scarce currency in South Africa today. This is largely because the official archives and accounts of political exploits and the historical context of Apartheid colonialism are constructed to privilege partisan political interests. Equally inimical is officialdom’s insistence on erasing or diminishing the wrongdoing of the former oppressors. The act of remembering is nourished by deliberate and vigilant consciousness that is anchored by a strong ethical framework. It must be divested of party political claims that clutter the national discourse.
A particularly capricious form of national identity and nationalism, which is often utilised in neo–colonial states, can promote or consolidate political objectives. The fabricated reconciliation, as part of South Africa’s heritage, serves the merchandising of the fictitious “rainbow nation” rather than the redemption of the Afrikan psyche. Such sentiment is difficult to reverse or reshape once wielded.
The United States has similarly built itself on the imagination of the American Dream even though the contradictions of racism, sexism and class oppression have kept a huge part of the population in conditions of poverty, early death, police brutality, unemployment and despair. Despite this, millions of people enter America to partake in a heritage that extends to very few people beyond the white, male, middle class. The South African scenario is similarly unfolding and the practice of manufactured nation building has come at a price of dispossession, coercive silencing and constant un-remembering. This contributes to creating the condition of unknowing and unseeing the truth as a survival mechanism.
The ethics of remembering should not allow the sacrifices of the dead to be diminished by acts of political vandalism. The vandalism that we witness daily has multiple locations. The education system has remained uncritical of allowing a colonial aesthetic to shape the minds and discourses of young minds. The manipulative form of nationalism that has been sanctioned over the past twenty years seems determined to reconstruct a nation of disfigured memories and half-truths. The heritage industry is sometimes another site of vandalism rather than a broadly representative recollection of the past 350 years of battle and painful formation of this nation in all its contradictions. Corrosive recollections are not unique to this country. They reflect the characteristics, power and intent of the ones who shape history.
The most spurious wars such as the ‘War on Terror’ have been valorised for posterity in some quarters. Enquiry of memory must be accompanied by an underlying discomfort and reality that memory is often subjective and chauvinistic. This necessitates greater space for multiple and competing narratives. In the context of neo-colonial nation building, these narratives should be anchored to formation and celebration of Afrikan stories, contexts, histories and herstories. The extent of the genocide on our being, our continent, our imaginations and humanity requires an ongoing and dynamic rehabilitation of our core. An ethical memorial framework should transfer not only political and economic power, but also transfer the sovereignty of memory and Afrikan identities.
Erasure has allowed and enabled the men and nations who violated the ‘comfort women’ during the World War 2 to remain unaccountable. Erasure has enabled the slave trade in Congo, which reduced the population by 70%, to be airbrushed even in national discourses. Erasure was the catalyst for the forced removal of millions of aboriginal children in America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (Aotearoa) from their loving families, in order to be culturally whitewashed in cruel state orphanages or adopted into white families. Erasure is the reason that Welsh and Irish children’s tongues were cut in English-run schools to prevent them from asserting self-knowledge in Gaelic. Erasure has removed Shaka from Heritage Day, removed Moshoeshoe, Bambaatha, Manthatisi, Modjadji and countless others from the national calendar. The names and battles of the ones who fell and continue to fall today should be etched in our consciousness.
Heritage is always contested and the uncomfortable connection with colonial legacies is evident in the architecture around us, the food we eat, the music we hear, the languages of instruction and commerce. This hybrid of culture should neither confuse nor befuddle our aspirations towards Afrikan consciousness embodied in our poetry, languages, literature, moments of national remembrance and ways of being. Millions of Afrikan minds, ideas, words, thoughts, inventions, musical notes, physical efforts, intellectual endeavours and epistemic undertakings have contributed towards and built imaginations, monuments and empires across the world. Despite this, the US and European empires remains unapologetic and impervious to the huge debts they owe to Afrikan creativity, brilliance and blood. The subjugation of others seems to be an indelible core of those empires and the defence of the indefensible an inherent legacy born out of a culture of conquest.
The interrogation of memory and heritage creates an ethical requirement of nation building and also a powerful opportunity to reframe and challenge the narratives of “reconciliation and truth” that have been efficient midwives for erasure and amnesia. It is a potent instrument of vexing political sentiment. Democratisation of memory removes domination of memory discourse from those who can write or conquer media and publishing houses to essentially frame a narrow and often disjointed interpretation of history. Democratisation brings the stories and accounts of communities and individuals across the socio-political spectrum to the centre. Shared or social memory is the gamut of traditions, languages, food, struggles, legends, taboos, spirituality, battles and interpretations of events and that lend themselves to the act and practise of being Afrikan. Self-knowledge is the highest forms of sovereignty and any nation or people who do not protect or even recognise multiple forms of knowing and remembering are disfiguring their identities.
The negation of one set of memories over another is inscribed by the negation of one set of experiences over another. The politics of negation and erasure in neo-colonial South Africa have resulted in a particular framing of patriotism that has dislocated the Africanist and Black Conscious contributions from the struggle and corralled collective thinking accordingly. Equally problematic is the elitism and othering that is promoted by the framing and site of heritage. Rather than being diminished to a dashiki or Seshoeshoe once a year, heritage ought to form the normative acts, symbols and forms of our daily existence. Traditional clothing is a powerful symbol of being and rather than being fetishised once a year, should from the tapestry of our community, work places, schools until the colonial imagination is diminished. This tapestry includes the languages, names, poetry, literature and human ethic that contribute to the people we are. Nation building requires that we stand as witnesses to the full truth of the past and the present. It requires a critical mass comprising of the plurality of the many who know, who see and who speak.
To quote Cabral: “The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so.”
* Lebohang Liepollo Pheko is Senior Research Fellow, The Trade Collective, Managing Director - Four Rivers Trading, Steering Member - South African Women in Dialogue [SAWID] and Board Member and Africa Regional Coordinator - International Network on Migration and Development.
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