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Mosaics of melancholia

There is something of the melancholic about South African socio-political discourse, often in tension with acts of mourning.

In Ambiguities of Witnessing, his excellent consideration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other responses to the trauma of apartheid, Mark Sanders argues that we need to mourn apartheid if we are to let it go, if we are to get over it.

As Freud wrote in his essay Mourning and Melancholia, there is a distinction to be made between the work of mourning, in which the lost object is gradually released by the grieving psyche, and the “melancholia” that desperately clings to it for as long as possible, becoming a pathological kind of refusal to let it go.

That is not to make a judgment about whether the lost object was “good” or “bad”. We do not grieve only good parents who die, for instance; in fact, it may be that we grieve more intensely when the dead parent was “bad”, for we have to mourn also a set of lost potentialities, the irretrievable ways in which things could have been otherwise.

The melancholic is apparent in the way some in the ANC keep referring back to apartheid or, more recently, the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. The ANC defined itself for so long as anti-apartheid that to lose apartheid was in some way to lose self-definition.

Obviously the legacy of apartheid will take some time to be erased, in practical, social and economic (especially economic) terms, but it’s not hard to see how repeatedly blaming apartheid for ongoing problems and failures is a way of clinging to it as a defining paradigm for where we find ourselves.

In a similar way the Zuma-ANC defined itself as different to Mbeki’s ANC, and some of the anti-Mbeki faction have to keep invoking Mbeki’s sins to remind us of the difference.

Likewise, the use of race as a rhetorical weapon by the likes of Julius Malema could be seen as a clinging to precisely the kind of definitional framework that characterised the apartheid order. This is not to say race isn’t still an issue in South Africa, and a deeply painful one; it is simply to note that we often conduct our political arguments in terms we are supposed to be trying to leave behind. Malema and other neo-Africanists might be switching the good/bad valence of such terms, but there is a nostalgia in this, a yearning for a time when “black” and “white” were clearly defined opposites, at least in the imagination.

In his subtle, touching and often quite lovely book, Native Nostalgia (Jacana), Jacob Dlamini considers this kind of yearning. He quotes reports, usually written on the eve of an election, that always seem to find some disgruntled black pensioner who’s willing to say that things were better back then, under apartheid. He sees in this a nostalgia for order in today’s often chaotic South Africa.

He goes on, however, to distinguish between different kinds of nostalgia. The present is always defining itself against the past, and in South Africa it is too easy to create another black/white category in which the past is uniformly bad and the present good. It cannot be gainsaid that there are many things that are better than “before”, but we have to acknowledge that some things are not, and it is useful to begin to interrogate the differences, to sift out the good and bad of then and now.

Dlamini opposes the “master narrative” that homogenises all black life under apartheid into forms of suffering. His is a “reflective nostalgia” that will not romanticise the past, even a past of heroic black resistance, but rather wants to find the textures and nuances of that past in ways that contradict the objectifying terms of black victimhood.

He does this through fragments of memory, his own tales of growing up in Katlehong in the early 1980s, posing personal experience against the “master narrative” that simultaneously flattens and monumentalises. He recalls black support for the white boxer Gerrie Coetzee and the way black people listened to ethnically defined state-run radio stations in ways that undercut such tribalist definitions. He remembers class divisions within black society, evident in naming practices and the games children played, and considers the significance of township rats. The township is not just a locus of black suffering but a zone of ambiguity.

To read Native Nostalgia, as some doubtless will, as a defence of life under apartheid is a gross misunderstanding. Rather, Dlamini’s project is akin to Njabulo Ndebele’s plea for a “rediscovery of the ordinary” and the ways in which such ordinary lives created meanings that evade the “spectacular” terms of oppression and revolution, that go beyond the stark rhetoric of power.

The book may have a bit too much academic-style self-explanation, but perhaps that is needed in the present political context, and its core is a warm and often amusing form of personal storytelling, replete with a kind of gentle irony, that enriches one’s understanding of past, present and the relation between them. In that, I see Native Nostalgia as doing some of what Freud called Trauerarbeit, the work of mourning, and thereby countering the melancholic tendency.

Rian Malan, by contrast, seems to evince a different kind of nostalgia, at least as apparent in Resident Alien (Jonathan Ball), a collection of his journalism of the past 15 years or so. He’s not nostalgic for apartheid in any form, but he’s certainly melancholic. It feels like he yearns for an era in which people had “honour”, told the truth, and black was as neatly counterpoised against white as good was against bad. It’s like he sets this imaginary Eden against reality and constantly finds reality wanting.

In a piece called The Apocalypse that Wasn’t (which Mbeki quoted in his 2004 state of the nation speech), Malan admits that he was “hoist by [his] own dark prognostications” when South Africa miraculously managed a peaceful election in 1994. Part of Malan (the traitorous-heart part) is reminded that we are essentially savages, all of us, and our savagery will out at some point. Yet sometimes he’s nostalgic for his own pessimism.

He does not see a hopeful future in political solutions or grand social schemes but in the capacity of people to “mutate”, like the Zulu-speaking Alcock brothers whose story he tells, or the old Afrikaner woman living just like her black neighbours in an impoverished Kenyan village.

The collection includes Malan’s excursions into the Aids-stats controversy. He republishes a long “letter” to Rolling Stone and a Spectator piece in which he investigates the Aids-death projections of bodies such as UNAids and finds them woefully overstated, even deliberately inflated. Despite this having received a furious rebuttal from the Treatment Action Campaign’s Nathan Geffen, for one, Malan gives us these pieces again, unchanged.

Geffen questioned Malan’s motives, and some have seen him as sucking up to Mbeki, but it’s clear that Malan is just a maverick who calls it as he sees it — to use his own formulation. And he can sum up and skewer Mbeki in a paragraph or two, while allowing for his achievements; that’s a lot less space than it takes most of Mbeki’s detractors, who are still compiling things to blame him for.

Among the most enjoyable pieces in the book are a tribute to the Yeoville of the 1980s, when it was a jumbled but joyous space of racial mixing and rock ‘n roll, and Malan’s work on music, including the story of Mbube/Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight, its maker, Solomon Linda, who reaped little benefit from it, and how that song conquered the world. There is also a very funny piece on Malan’s own attempt to be a rock star. He is sharp on JM Coetzee and riveting on Ronald Suresh Roberts’s apologia for Mbeki.

Mostly, Malan is a great storyteller and sometime polemicist, even if he has no real deep political analysis to speak of; his politics are primitive, with a knee-jerk dismissal of “lefties” (like his own youthful self) and a persistent belief in the communist-plot notion of South Africa’s recent history. Not that there weren’t a lot of commies in the left and the ANC, but their plotting was pretty ramshackle and their agenda was comprehensively dumped. For this, he duly credits Mbeki in his consideration of Mark Gevisser’s biography.

Whether right or wrong, though, Malan is a consistently vivid, energetic writer. It’s hard not to keep reading Resident Alien once you’ve started, and even when you’re done you’re likely to page back through the book in case there’s something you missed. The energy is in the prose, in the clash of slang and biblical phraseology, in his very South African voice; it’s also in his drive to tell a story, to turn his gimlet eye on something that troubles him and to subject it to the scratching of his lively melancholia.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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