Without memory it is impossible to learn

A fund raising dinner for the Lenny Naidu Development Institute gives me an opportunity to share with you some challenges we face in relation to nation building.

I take as our point of departure a statement by Archbishop Tutu written in 2001. Reflecting on the importance of memory the Arch reminded us that “without memory it would be virtually impossible to learn; we could not learn from experience, because exp erience is something that is remembered. I would forever have to start from the beginning, not realizing that a hot stove invariably burns the hand placed upon it. What I know is what I remember and that helps to make me who I am.”

This led him to capture is a single sentence one of the our most formidable challenges, namely, that “Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a history.”

It is in this context that we celebrate that in five years of its existence, the LNDI has provided bursaries to 21 students to pursue their studies at the tertiary level. The recipients are drawn from  four schools located in Lamontville, KwaMashu and Chatsworth – the areas from which the Golela Nine came from; the the three female and six male MK guerillas, including Lenny Naidu, who were ambushed and murdered by the hits squads of the monstrous apartheid security forces in June 1988, The idea behind earmarking the four schools from these three areas is to ensure that their communities will perpetuate the memories of the commitment and service of these gallant freedom fighters to whom we owe so much for the freedom we enjoy today.

There are today many such initiatives . All share the common thread of seeking to keep alive the memory of individuals who have contributed to the making of SA.

At the same time, if we measure ourselves in terms of the Arch’s definition that “Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a history”, I am afraid progress has been too little, almost infinitesimal. And the biggest obstacle is a four letter word spelt r-a-c-e.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred in the prisoner of war camps in Egypt during the S econd W orld W ar, where captured German soldiers were held in camps were manned by soldiers from the allied forces, in this instance by British and SA soldiers. Cutting a cross the divide of prisoner and camp guard members of the German, the British and the SA communist parties used to hold joint political classes and discussions. Bound by a common ideology, the discussionswere always friendly and marked by their shared comradeship, until the day they were discussing political systems in the future post-war world. A German communist suggested that the first thing they would have to do is to get rid of the monarchy. This was too much for a British communist who rudely intervened “You bloody Jerry. Lay off our King!”

The idea of building a SA nation embracing all its people received legal and constitutional sanction with the adoption of the Interim Constitution of 1993 and the final Constitution of 1996.

It came from the lineage of the Freedom Charter of 1955, which proclaimed the SA belongs to all who live in it, black and white. This vision was the product of the experiences of the indigenous people who came to be dispossessed through wars of conquest, wars that individual tribes tended to resist on their own. From this they learnt the need for African people to unite as one people, which became the central platform for the formation of the ANC in 1912.

The Three Doctors’ Pact of 1947 sought to lay the basis for African and Indian struggles to wage joint campaigns in their fight for freedom. Also at the political and trade union levels, the idea of unity in struggle gradually took root and led to the emergence of the Congress Alliance led by the ANC. This happened despite the fact that colonial and apartheid rule had developed an elaborate system of differential treatment affecting the jobs one was allowed to do, the wages one received, the schools one attended, the areas where one lived, in short even the dreams one dreamed, based skin colour and hair texture. It was divide and rule with a vengeance with the singular aim of perpetuating white minority rule permanently.

It was the sharing of their individual and collective experiences of life and struggle, understanding the foundations of the humiliating differential treatment they endured, empathizing with each other’s experiences and appreciating the way power was distributed in SA society; it was what people wanted for themselves and for all who lived in SA that breathed life to the Freedom Charter.

Until then the dominant narrative of the SA nation was derived from the inauguration of the Union of SA on 31 May 1910. While it established a geographical entity known as South Africa, the union was a deal between Briton and Boer consummated at the expense of the right to full citizenship for people of colour. To the extent it laid the foundations for a SA nation, it was a schizophrenic nation. Or if you will, it was premised on two nations in one geographical space. It is what led Oliver Tambo, when he was President of the ANC, to explain that apartheid SA made him feel like he was a foreigner in the country of his birth.  [Lyons Corner House?].

How much progress have we made in the short space of two decades?

The challenge remains: we have yet the share the experiences of our diverse peoples in such a way that any particular community appropriates the experiences of another and identifies with it as part of the basket of experiences of the nation. Most of our commemorations have not yet reached beyond the boundaries of particular individual, communal, ethnic, religious, tribal or race defined entities.

Appropriating these experiences into an over-arching frame, building a common sense of community across the divides, is made more difficult in that much of the celebrations and memorials do not show the individual or community in a state of evolution through responding the external stimuli, through interaction – marked both by cooperation and conflict with others, and influencing others as well as events beyond one’s self. In the absence of such a dynamic view, a person is reduced to a wooden image, lifeless and more myth than human.

As Madiba was fond of saying about himself: a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.

This is not a matter of burying aspects of our past under a blanket of amnesia. It is a question of new social developments requiring us to reclaim a past that was denied to most of the people of SA, of a continuous process of acquiring new lens to view what has gone before as well as what happened when it happened, from new perspectives created by the advent of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic SA in which all people irrespective of race, colour, class, religion, sexual orientation, culture and language unite to forge a nation rooted in our continent.

Yes, most South Africans have come to identify with Mandela as the founding father of our democracy. But it is happening through distorted lens. Most white people do not see the liberation struggle as having benefitted them and given them a stake in our democracy; they do not see liberation as having liberated the oppressor as well!

At the same time there is a growing perception among black people that they have been short changed in the transition to democracy.

In this mix of most members of the white community washing their hands off any responsibility for the present and black people becoming disillusioned by the persistence and widening of the inequality gap, it almost seems as if the idea of a common South African identity remains bogged down in the mire of the Union of SA in 1910. Worse, the tensions generated in this cauldron cloud our pathways as to how we can move SA forward without drifting backward.

It is becoming fashionable for some to critique the present and add as a rider a mea culpa, namely, a person says, I include myself in regard to mistakes we have made in the building of the SA of today. This is not good enough. The past is a very important reservoir of mistakes every society can learn from. It is not enough to simply wring one’s hands and proclaim “I admit I was part of the making of the mistake”. To facilitate and engage in this learning we need identify the “mistake”, delineate its elements – only then do we open the past to learning from it. And this task would be made so much easier if such would-be confessors helped identify the mistakes they were party to. This is not a question of losing face, rather it helps shift the focus from playing the blame game to understanding the consequences of any such mistake and mapping a way forward.

Are those who demanded that Rhodes Must Fall saying that Rhodes has no place in our history? I do not think so. At the heart of their action is the demand that we reinterpret the past from the perspective of the present. And I would argue that the focus of the present is a non-racial, non-sexist democratic SA based on equality. It involves a search for understanding our identity. Who are we? And democratic SA has not undertaken this task as a priority in understanding who we are and where we are going as a people.

I look back on the activities of my generation and see how we let the ball slip from time to time. We set off in 1994 with a programme founded on three legs: reconstruction, reconciliation and nation-building. The three were fundamentally interlinked. Somehow in the aftermath we allowed each leg to be separated from the other. And often we allowed the exigencies of the the present – oh, how the present is always pressing – to blind us to consequences that were taking us away from our goals.

In the hubris of the negotiated transition we redefined the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1901 as the South African War. Scholars brought forth evidence of the large numbers of black people were victims of the war; of the large numbers of blacks who were incarcerated in concentration camps and many died there; of the substantial numbers of blacks who served in the war – some on the side of the Boer forces, and others in the Imperial army. We allowed this to cloud our perception and designated the war as the SA war. Incidentally we did this even before a geographical and/or juridical entity called SA had come into existence. And democratic parliament welcomed this designation. Such was the mood.

If this were only a matter of a change of name, there would be no problem. But the change in name changed our understanding of the nature of that war. It obscured the immanent anti-colonial nature of the Boer cause, which by the way, lost its way by making their freedom an exclusive cause, instead of making it a part of the growing understanding that freedom is indivisible. Calling it the SA War, made all affected, combatant and victim, indistinguishable in their roles and all made ‘men of honour’ in the service of SA.

I think we fluffed it. It obscured the need to reclaim our past and reinterpret the past from the focus of building a SA nation.

This is not the only instance. The present emotionally charged efforts to reinterpret the past are a conjuncture that has arisen because of a series of oversights, mistakes and acts of omission my generation committed with the best of intentions but often without interrogating the consequences for the future.

The TRC legislation was crafted on the basis of widespread consultation and eventually entrusted to the then two deputy presidents together with the then Minister of Justice to find a way past the reservations by were being raised by the party of FW de Klerk.

When I consider the aftermath of the TRC many questions come to the fore. I ask myself how did we allow the idea of a ‘moral equivalence’ to creep in as a measure between actions of the apartheid repressive machinery and the forces of liberation? Such an equation had never arisen before: the actions of the Allied Forces bore no moral or legal equivalence to Nazi Germany’s actions.

The judiciary under colonialism and apartheid was a critical arm of the state – as critical as the security forces – in the perpetration of crimes against humanity, injustice and the suppression of the oppressed majority. That was the norm and enlightened judgments were the exception. Millions had passed through that mill – from pass law offenders to freedom fighters. How did the TRC decide not to summon a single judge, magistrate or prosecutor to account before it? Are we surprised that there is among many black people the perception that the post-1994 judiciary is not sufficiently transformed? Worse, transformation has been reduced to the single dimension of racial and gender representativity! Why have neither members of the TRC not other commentators have deigned to explore this territory as part of the process of understanding the present perceptions and problems. Clearly unless my generation who were at the helm at the time raise such questions the issue will remain buried and therefore our understanding of the present will be that much the poorer.

In the same way, how and why did it come to pass that despite the fact that many editors and journalists in the ranks of the media during the time of apartheid served two masters – their profession and as minions of apartheid and against the struggle for freedom. Yet none was called to account before the TRC the way members of the liberation movement were made to account for their actions!

The examples I have cited have contributed to the current state of inadequate and often lop-sided progress in the fulfilment of the key imperative of our Constitution which enjoins us to build a SA nation founded on equality and unity in diversity.

It is only when we spell out these instances that we can get to grips of how this happened , analyse the current conjuncture and therefore begin to address how we ensure that our people and country move along the correct trajectory.

We are far far from most whites, and many Indian South Africans and so-called Coloureds appropriating the experiences of the oppressed and the liberation struggle and making them part of who they are. Need I ask how many are at the point where Chief Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, and Robert Sobokwe, and a pantheon of so many others, are part of this SA nation – the nation to which we all belong?

Without the liberation struggle and without the services, among others, of these men and women, there is no SA nation.

Reflect on the statement of the Arch: “Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a history” and let us all begin to test consciously what we do from the perspective to the extent to which our actions contribute to or detract from the realisation of this worthy goal.

Comrade Mac Maharaj is a former ANC NEC member

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