Monthly Archives: July 2009

Apartheid still lives on in SA

From The Weekender, 27-8 June 2009
Posted to the web on: 27 June 2009
Apartheid still lives on in SA
AN UNDERGRADUATE student of mine recently spoke of racism, and apartheid specifically, as something that happened “in our grandparents’ time”. How I wish that is true.

I remain ambivalent about the meanings of such ignorance. On the one hand, I am amazed that an 18-year-old can make such a weighty slip. For her, apartheid can never be a burdensome reference point, and an ever-present reality that shapes what is possible and what not — like it was for me, and many South Africans of the same age.

On the other hand, this relegation of apartheid to a mythical distant past is enabled by the forced amnesia at the heart of new South African nationalism.

The past is not a closed, transcended chapter 15 years after the formal death of apartheid. Many of its stories continue to live in the present, undermining rainbow nationalism and unity in diversity, and rendering the transcendence of race unlikely.

Two events I attended last weekend drove home the many dangers of pretending that we can wish apartheid away. Its legacy continues to shape our country in material, emotional and psychological ways every day.

Those of us who are not 18 have some answering to do, and even more work ahead of us if we are to be truly free of apartheid’s inheritances. There is logic to wanting to forget about apartheid. No matter what else was going on in our lives, it was a time of shame, complicity and degradation.

Those who were victimised by it may very well have wanted to forget about it because nobody enjoys remembering pain and humiliation. Its supporters live in an altered moral universe, and want to disavow their role due to guilt and shame .

I n our daily lives we recognise that sweeping such feelings and pasts under the carpet is counter-productive. Not wanting to “dwell” on painful experiences is different from granting permission to others to pretend there is no painful past with ongoing effects.

We want its existence recognised, honoured and respected. Being defensive when we have wounded others is bad form. Yet in relation to apartheid, for the most part, this is how we continue to write the national script on race.

Speaking at the launch of the Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club at Xarra Books at the weekend, Tlali noted that “in order to understand this country, you have to learn about what has been happening. Like everybody else, we are the progeny of our past, of our history.”

Human Rights Commission chairman Jody Kollapen reminded us in his keynote address to the Apartheid Archive Project conference last week that there is no mention of apartheid in the South African constitution. In the spirit of the constitution, we speak of apartheid euphemistically or pretend that it has been resolved.

However, as University of Cape Town psychology professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela told the conference, denial will not allow South Africans to get to the place of transcendence we pretend to have already reached.

If we do not own these stories and how they shaped us, we give them invisible power to affect daily exchanges today. We will not be able to recognise one another’s full humanity until we choose to confront the past, and honestly own up to its wounds and ongoing material and psychological effects.

Defensiveness just postpones the problem and means we are all sitting on a ticking time bomb. There is already much evidence in our society of the rage that comes from misrecognition.

Apartheid lies not just in what Wits University head of psychology Prof Norman Duncan calls “unwelcome memories hurtling into the present” — it determines who is most likely to be poor, to be deliberately rendered homeless, racially harassed, promoted without question or ridiculed for being excellent.

It affects whose pain is most likely to be denied or mocked. It determines whose alienation is masked or amplified.

The conference was an invitation to face the archive that is apartheid — whether it is written on our bodies, in our minds or in what we choose to tell. Facing the archive is about gathering and processing information.

This was reflected in Wits historian Noor Nieftagodien’s keynote address: the importance of paying attention to ordinary people’s lives under apartheid, rather than the sole focus on the heroes and villains .

Until that is done, understanding, processing and transcending apartheid will not happen.

The conference speakers offered differing voices and contrasting politics but Kollapen’s keynote was the very embodiment of facing the archive. He went beyond asking how it was possible to reconcile South African contradictions to build a compelling argument on what the consequences of such double speak are.

Less than 4% of land has been redistributed, but public discourse focuses on white fears of land grabs “Zimbabwean style”.

Most available research shows that affirmative action and black economic empowerment have had limited success, yet even some of the most “respectable” newspapers scream about endangered white professionals. This cruel inversion provides alibis to conservative white people as they manufacture paranoia.

Apart from anecdotal recitals, even the most conservative researchers have failed to produce evidence that white men are marginalised in SA today.

This manufactured paranoia holds blacks and progressive whites hostage: for as long as we are weighed down by reassuring imaginary marginalised whites, we are distracted from fully engaging in transformation .

In academic institutions across SA, many white people refuse to recognise black excellence even when faced with overachievers because “affirmative action” has been turned into a swear word.

Yet at the same time, white mediocrity is rife, with many underqualified and underperforming white men in senior posts across the academic landscape.

Many white women in academia are both the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action and its biggest gatekeepers. Here manufactured paranoia is supported by the lie that all black people leave academia because of more lucrative employment in government and corporate SA.

Research points to the exact opposite, but we are to believe the unproven, widely circulated lie of black greed and white marginality.

It is 2009 and black academics remain a minority within the academy, where they are reminded at every turn of “affirmative action”. White academics are individuals. Blacks are representatives who stand in for the hordes of “underqualified” barbarians .

Apartheid would not let people speak their truth: of guilt, victimisation, complicity, shame and pain. Manufactured white paranoia does the work of apartheid: it silences and inverts what is really going on, sans evidence.

Counteraccusations of racism when white privilege is pointed out push the debate into invisibility, silencing like apartheid did.

Attorney Sibongile Ndashe calls these the passwords that make honest discourse impossible in SA: women have to say “not all men are bad” before they can be heard. Black people have to say “there are some good white people” before there can be the pretence of listening.

We often feel that our individual stories are insignificant. But we carry them whether painful or pleasant. The apartheid archive project is a way to find community.

It is an ambitious project. Its team continues to deal with the various ways in which an archive such as this can work and be used.

The project gives hope like little else that deals with race in SA. Tlali also said that facing our history should be part of what we teach our children and it is why we “should be as restless as we can be” until the work is complete.

Gqola is [associate] professor in the School of Literature and Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.