Future Generations, Conflicted Pasts

 where are we headedNelson Mandela and FW de Klerk

When old friends resolve their differences and restore their relationship, reconciliation has occurred. Once this has happened they do not go back and count one anothers’ faults and weaknesses.

They cease to describe their world, which they must both co-habit by reasons of history, using the same short-hand formulas they once used to refer to each other.

They understand and speak of themselves as one thing. What admitting one’s mistake does is to create an opportunity for a new beginning: one no longer based on fear and lies, but one based on truth, love and freedom between people.

One of the founding principles of the forming of this country of South Africa is the spirit of reconciliation. A reconciling spirit is one that is willing to forgive without conditions, and accepts consequences and solutions to its problems as no longer in the hands of the former oppressor but in the hands of the newly constituted public.

Ours is the task to pursue without recourse to outmoded ways of explanation; that quickly point at ‘whites are racist’, ‘blacks are lazy’—but are often unwilling to dabble with what the answers to our problems could be if we didn’t revert back to our pre-given formulas. What happens when we have no one to blame, for instance?

To say things may be viewed differently today, is a risk we are not yet willing to take.

It is risky as it may imply that the solution lies with us, and not in the hands of our former oppressor. But also truth be told, to keep returning to old attitudes has an enfeebling influence—on our relations, on our level of trust, on our own self-confidence, that we have the ability to solve our own problems.

And this wealth of discussion furthermore operates usually to reinforce traditional or well-established attitudes, either those defined in the liberation struggle or early in our transition to democracy.

In a sense holding these traditional or well-established views on race replicates or even regulates the discussions that take place, so that we keep saying the same thing over and over.

Our solution
It is the business of the new citizen, the Creative African—at least as we see it—to examine those attitudes beyond the excitement of the moment, to go beneath the surface; to distinguish between old challenges and new challenges, and to be willing to accept that they may demand different approaches than those thus far attempted. But it may also demand of us to re-look our past with “judicious” eyes [judicious that is, to be directed by the exercise of good/sensible judgment], to be willing to find ourselves stranded, naked of our previous agendas.

CAn1-gXWUAA0iaDWhatever our previous strategic and political agendas were, some may have to admit that in fighting the horrors of an unjust system, (1) they forgot to empower their women and girl-children in the home; (2) that many forsook education in the process. This became a breeding ground for a culture hostile to learning.

(3) Indeed the burning of libraries and looting of schools that we regularly experience in service-delivery protests may be the aftershocks of a long tradition of defiance and hostility to education/learning.

Some may have to admit that though they may now agree that apartheid was a bad system, (4) they accomodated its privelege and seclusion. As a result, they are now wealthier under the new democratic order precisely because of what they benefited from during apartheid.

Oh these are frightening questions to be probing 20 years since liberation! but as long as we live with the idea that “I won’t own up lest they use it against me for the rest of my life”—this is a cowardly attitude.

We have to agree to accept points based on them being good ideas rather than on the basis of who is making them:

We seem to be in agreement about the lasting effects of trauma, that it is not easily erased by the handshake. In her book A Human Being Died That night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela brings to the foreground the challenges of the pyschology of violence and trauma, through an interview with Eugene De Kock, the former head of the apartheid government’s covert operations unit. De Kock tells us in the interview that “White South Africans were very happy to be protected…They didn’t care how. Or what our methods were.”

The remarkable power of the statement is in its reminder of the moral lapses that happened when a government (and voters who kept it in power) supported and financed De Kock’s actions. It had to be done to maintain the status quo.

We may want to imagine how different things could have been was there a chorus of voices of white South Africans who spoke against apartheid. But the responsibility is nowourdays no longer in the voices of white South Africans alone. We all have a part to own in the denials that make the pain of those who suffered under apartheid invisible.

Article courtesy of : The Mercury in Hobart, Tasmania
Article courtesy of : The Mercury in Hobart, Tasmania

We also seem to agree that the liberation struggle was at times self-decieved in the pursuit of its own sense of justice:

On the 9th November 1952 Sister Quinlan, an Irish nun also a medical doctor was stoned, stabbed and burned to death in the township of Duncan Village in East London, by a crowd that was protesting under the Defiance Campaign. Sister Quinlan though was coming to help mothers’ giving birth in the township, she was not there to inflict pain on the sufferings of the people.

Reflecting on this incident today, Njabulo Ndebele writes, “It is a story of good intentions gone wrong in the frenzy of a thoughtless moment.” He then asks, “Why are we not telling her story in our schools today?”

“I think it’s because it has become a matter of habit for us to keep telling the stories of what was done to us. We do not tell as much the stories of what we did. This habit results in a remarkable irony.

The more we tell the stories of what was done to us, we steadfastly recall and therefore remain in the past that we had strived to release ourselves from. When we do this, we retain our status as objects. We can be objects not only in the eyes of others but also in our own eyes.

Something else happens, though, when we tell the story of what we did. We become subjects. Subjects are responsible for what they do. The more we tell the story of what we did, we create the possibility that through our own efforts we can create the future that we still desire.

Then, the story of our future becomes our story not the story of our reaction to others. We become, though our own actions, the subject of our own learning. We will learn more from what we did and do, than only from what was done to us.”

We have stories that suggest a conflicted past: Tony Leon, in his new book Opposite Mandela, shares a personal story of how Nelson Mandela defended him when attacks were launched by ANC members against him during the early days of democracy. They would bring up the fact that Leon’s father was a judge in the apartheid regime, who sentenced to death a liberation activist in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s.

Mandela maintained that Leon should not be judged on the actions of his father. Although Leon’s story is striking given the potency of the energy that surrounded the early years of democracy, its relevance is being played back to our moment in time, 20 years after 1994.

This serves as an invitation for you to join us in reflecting on this matter.

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