The Dream that Can No Longer be Deferred
What happens when we avoid facing the past? Does it haunt us, yielding feelings of shame, guilt or anger? Or do we deny it and the feelings it evokes and then pursue a quest to “move on” and forget? Does the past play itself out symbolically in our lives, transforming us into victims, heroes or villains? Does it transform into a language of hate and destructive engagement in the public sphere? Or does it explode into violence, whether real or symbolic, against an Other?
These are not just rhetorical questions; they are questions of profound significance in a society, like ours, whose history is steeped in repression and violence. The questions are necessary because they have implications for our understanding of how “the past” may play itself out in repetition in times of crisis in our society. Past injustices are often collectively remembered by groups that have suffered oppression and gross human rights violations at certain critical times of the group’s social life. These collective memories of past traumas may be violently acted out when the level of frustration proliferates and escalates.
The parallels between the rising dis-content that we have witnessed among the majority of South Africans who are still waiting for meaningful transformation in their lives, almost 20 years since liberation from apartheid rule, and the frustration observed among African Americans a century after their liberation from slavery, calls to mind the words of the African-American poet, Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote his poem Harlem, in the early 1950s as a warning to America about the powder keg of frustration among black Americans that was threatening to explode. When the dreams, hopes and aspirations of a people are “deferred” or frustrated, he wrote, they will “explode.” The African-Americans’ Civil Rights Movement some years later could be seen as this “explosion” that Hughes predicted in his poem a decade earlier.
I have been concerned about the issue of the potential for “explosion” in our society for a few years now. It has reappeared again, and has been brought into focus by Julius Malema’s words and actions in recent months, and especially his speech at the ANC Youth League Conference in June.
A central issue in the Youth League leader’s “sophisticated terrain of struggle”—as he referred to his call for economic freedom—is the past, and the urgent need to redress it. Malema places himself in the center of this narrative about the past and connects his own individual memory of the past with the collective historical experience of the people on whose behalf he speaks: “We are children of domestic workers,” he said, “we know what it means not to find a plate of food on the table.” This was not simply an interesting detail about his past family life, but rather, more fundamentally, it was a persuasive public testimony about a world where helpless parents worried how they were going to feed their children. The current reality of Malema’s supporters is inextricably bound up with their past, a past that Malema shares. Therefore, despite his lifestyle, he can rely on the powerful bond with his supporters because of a shared past he is able to articulate on their behalf.
The memory of long-past traumatic injustices cannot be silenced. Yet some have called for a “forgetting” of the past. They argue that “digging up” the past is a senseless exercise that turns back the wheel of history, and that it perpetuates victimhood and undermines a future-oriented political vision. It is true that the emergence of collective memory of victimhood into public discourse may reignite hatred of historical enemies. For people who want to forget the past, however, “remembering” threatens their deepest sense of humanity because of the memory of what they did or did not do, of their complicity or their silence.
In contrast, Malema articulates in powerful language and imagery the sense of growing frustration among people for whom nothing has changed, because they have not tasted the fruits that political transformation promised. Making the beneficiaries of apartheid privilege “return” what they acquired during the apartheid era is the only chance of restoring the unfulfilled hopes of the oppressed, and the only way to deal effectively with the discontent and demands for real transformation.
At the same time, however, Malema is advocating a model of remembering that flirts with the most destructive aspects of memory: revenge. With time, continuing the trend he has started is bound to ferment into anger, confrontation and revenge. This is why South Africans need an alternative way of remembering the past. We need a new public discourse that is imbued with moral possibilities and a sense of responsible citizenship—to face the past in order to gain perspective about the present, including a capacity for understanding the experiences that confront many young people whose lives have not been touched by the waves of economic opportunity that have been rolled out in the name of black economic empowerment.
One has to be mindful of the dilemmas inherent in the “project” of facing the past. As Martha Minow, the dean of law at Harvard University, puts it, in considering the question of facing the past, there may be “too much memory or not enough; too much enshrinement of victimhood or insufficient memorializing of victims and survivors; too much past or too little acknowledgement of the past’s staging of the present”.
The reality of facing historical injustices is that it is not always easy to confront the past, because facing it may uncover difficult truths. Yet avoidance of the past is no longer an option for us South Africans. We can draw lessons from the memory of the Holocaust and the remembrance of its victims across the globe. The unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust are known not only for their origin in the public statements of the Nazi leader that dazzled the youth of those days, but also for the moral failures of societies of bystanders throughout Nazi Europe who supported Nazi policies. The same can be said about the events that led to the genocide in Rwanda. In all the histories of policies of systematic abuse of marginalized and oppressed groups, there is a society of voters who supported these policies. The former supporters of oppressive governments are usually the targets of hatred and resentment when the extraordinary hopes of oppressed groups remain unfulfilled. Therefore, the quest for dialogue about the past is a quest to avoid discourse driven by hate, and a quest for an alternative legacy of responsible communities and a more humane future.
I have mentioned that for a range of factors, facing the past does not come easily. Music and the arts, however, can give shape to our historical legacies and help us find a language with which to face our history in an attitude of building bridges for human connection across diversity instead of breaking them down. Philip Miller’s musical composition, “Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony,” offers an important alternative for engaging with the past. Rewind is based on recordings of testimonies of victims and survivors who appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In Miller’s musical, we encounter the interweaving of stories of victims, perpetrators and bystanders, all voices from the past telling the story of the different roles they played.
One of the stories in Miller’s performance is based on the TRC testimony of Nomonde Calata, widow of Fort Calata, one of the “Cradock Four” executed by apartheid security police. At the TRC hearing, she tried to tell the story of the important role that her husband played as a teacher and community leader who worked hard for the rights and dignity of black people. Her voice, replayed in Millers’ musical production, carried all the emotions she experienced when she found out about the vicious murder of her husband. At one point during her testimony, which was replayed at the staging of Miller’s Rewind at the Baxter Theatre in May, her voice faltered, and then she let out a piercing cry that shattered the stillness of the theatre.
And here is the power of the creative arts in bringing us to remembering the past: people did not leave after the performance of “Rewind.” Instead, they gathered around each other, and even around strangers, crying, talking to one another and sharing the most tragic, shameful or confusing aspects of our past. Through these brief dialogue encounters with one another we each can take some first steps into the light of hopefulness—hope, not as an abstract concept, but as a moment imbued with the real possibility of deepening a sense of acknowledgement, understanding and respect for one another’s pasts. We can begin to feel some wisps of a fresh breeze coming and be part of that possibility of living reconciliation.
The government should begin to think more creatively about what it can do to offer substantive alternatives to thousands of young black South Africans who wake up every day to face emptiness in their lives. Many of them are living their parents’ and grandparents’ lives in repetition, and in some cases their lives are worse than those of their parents’. The picture is a grim one for many of our young people, and the model that Malema offers—to take back what white people unjustly acquired in the past—inspires them to keep hope alive. Needless to say, for pragmatic (and moral) reasons, it is a model that is bound to fail and would lead our country to chaos. Past injustices, and the struggle against these injustices, have led to disruptive consequences across generations of black families. At the same time, generations of many white families have done relatively well and prospered because of the protection, privileges and benefits whites received under apartheid. The heritage of economic oppression and a life of servitude in previous generations continue to put younger members of many black communities in all their diversity at risk. The long and impenetrable shadow of injustice still covers our society, to paraphrase African-American activist Randall Robinson, and it is a legacy that the post-apartheid government has perpetuated over the past 17 years.