The Legacy of Violence & The Post-Apartheid South Africa

Noorlinah Mohamed

July 09, 2014

By Jay Pather

The issue of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has generated much public debate and some apprehension… what this issue raises is how we deal with a past that contained gross violations of human rights – a past which threatens to live with us like a festering sore.
Nelson Mandela, as part of his 100 Day Speech to Parliament in 1994

Nelson Mandela’s legacy in the context of a colonial legacy of abject violence and economic deprivation is a double-edged sword, one that epitomises the bristling dynamic in South Africa that continues to make it a land of so much contestation. Even in talking through issues of reconciliation and forgiveness, Mandela nevertheless never stopped reminding us of ‘a past that threatens to live with us like a festering sore'. Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela, would later go on to talk of the legacy and continued existence of ‘two countries’, one for the historically advantaged and another for the historically marginalised and disenfranchised.

Memory and legacies of violence play an important role, then, in the shaping of the new country. Whether it is acknowledging that Independence after Apartheid was not a clean cut from the past, nor was it a revolution that ensured the redistribution of land and wealth, the weight of a negotiated settlement has brought with it economic asymmetries and societal stresses that continue to plague thesociety.

Annie Coombes prefaces much of her authoritative work Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003) with references to such contestation. Interestingly, she begins with recalling Neville Alexander:

The strategic-political and ultimately moral-historical question is how to move towards understanding without ever forgetting, but to remember without constantly rekindling the divisive passions of the past” (Coombes 2003: 1)

Coombes agrees with Alexander, suggesting that the state of cool reason and acceptance is the higher plane that we should all aspire to. However, in South Africa, the unchecked continuities in economic distress and dire material circumstances ensure that the remembrances of such acts of colonial violation and economic deprivation have clear reference to the immediate present. In an article titled South Africa's Unfinished Revolution, Anne Applebaum, editor of the Economist and The Washington Post, writes:
While South Africans dealt brilliantly with the racial and historical legacy of the apartheid state, they have dealt less well with its corrupt economic legacy and the legacy of the security institutions created to repress the majority of citizens. (Applebaum, 2013: n.p)

Following these comments, then, as well as current statistics of unemployment [1] and poverty, a lack of change in material circumstances makes it crucial to witness, reimagine and resurrect the past time and time again, even though many who benefited under apartheid would wish it to simply go away. Recourse to ‘what happened’ becomes less about nostalgia, confession, confrontation and closure (suggested by even such institutions as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and more a harrowing journey to explain and affirm one’s current economic distress and wretchedness, and to simply understand the discrepancy between one’s labour and one’s absurdly dire material circumstances. An invocation of memory in relation to apartheid then becomes an active dialectic, a reflexive meditation, what is constantly alluded to by critical theorists Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricouer and Michel Foucault: that the act of remembering is a preoccupation with the present.

In their seminal article, Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies, Brandon Hamber and Richard Wilson comment:

The South African TRC has, in the interests of national reconciliation, muted feelings of vengeance and replaced them with what it calls a more restorative model (2002)
and conclude that:

The nation-building discourse of truth commissions homogenise disparate individual memories to create an official version, and in so doing, they repress other forms of psychological closure motivated by less ennobled (although no less real) emotions of anger and vengeance. Claims to heal the collective unconscious of the nation therefore mask how truth commissions both lift an authoritarian regime of denial and public silence, as well as create a new regime of forgetting which represses other memories and forms of psychological closure (2002 n.p.).

The need for material witness, for the actual accounts by individuals as opposed to a generalised and expedient national project, signals something far more important than the already huge task of achieving material equity, housing and land restitution. The need to materialise this intangible abnegation and disempowerment is erupting through the cracks in a variety of ways, many of which are violent. The lack of vehicle or form or even place for this perpetual, satisfying witness that is able to connect past and present is plain to see and mired in a range of absences and subjectivities. Disenchantment, graphic re-enactment and spontaneous threats of violence from parts of the nation, along with denial, amnesia and erasure from others, and the arguable failure of politically expedient projects such as reconciliation, national unity and social cohesion mark a difficult and complex terrain.

These areas of Memory and Legacy form key themes in the talk as well as that of the Body as Waste and the Human, Race, and Elusive Futures to sketch out a country that continues to exemplify its resilience in the face of its desires for erasure and its debilitating legacies. Ultimately, with audiovisual aids, the talk illustrates how this landscape provides a context for the work of artists such as, amongst others, Mamela Nyamza, Boyzie Cekwana and Zanele Muholi.

Other relevant texts:

•    Adebajo (A.), Adedeji (A.) & Landsberg (C.) eds., SOUTH AFRICA IN AFRICA, The Post-Apartheid Era

•    Alexander (A.) ed., ARTICULATIONS, a Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture collection Durban, 2006
A collection of sixteen of the lectures presented in the Harold Wolpe Memorial Public Lecture Series. Also includes reviews of the lectures by activists and academics.

Includes "Fanon, Marx, and the New Reality of the Nation: black political empowerment and the challenge of a new humanism in South Africa" by Nigel Gibson,
"Keeping it in Their Pants: politicians, men, and sexual assault in South Africa" by Charlene Smith,
"Democracy and the Importance of Criticism, Dissent, and Public Dialogue" by William Mervin Gumede,
"An Incomplete Freedom: the state of the media ten years into democracy" by Ferial Haffajee,
"Slow Delivery in South Africa's Land Reform Programme: the property clause revisited" by Lungisile Ntsebeza, and
"Ten Years of Democracy: a review" by Patrick Bond.

•    Zulu (P.), A NATION IN CRISIS, an appeal for morality; Cape Town, 2013.
Paulus Zulu examines the tension between justice and democracy and analyses what he sees
as a lack of public morality in South Africa nineteen years after liberation.

[1] According to Statistics South Africa (May 2013), the unemployment rate in South Africa increased to 25.20 percent in the first quarter of 2013, from 24.90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.   

  • 2014