The past – South Africa's past – remains highly contested. What we are told to remember (and what some tell us we need to forget) form part of a broader political struggle. This is a struggle waged by those who want to conceal their apartheid guilt and their shame with the legitimising robes of the anti-apartheid struggle or the soothing balm of amnesia. It is also a struggle waged by others who want to distract attention from the lack of radical structural economic and social transformation in South Africa by invoking a mythical and heroic past where only heroes and villains dwelt. Much is at stake in this fight to construct (and continuously to re-construct) this imaginary past – a past whose existence many achingly yearn for despite knowing that it could never have existed.
This past weekend Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille gave a speech, in which she tried to "rebrand" her party, arguing that the DA has a long history of involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle and is led by an array of anti-apartheid heroes. She even invoked her work as a journalist when she exposed the murder of Steve Biko by the security police (long before she became a DA leader) to punt her DA struggle credentials.
This came a week after Planning Minister Trevor Manuel landed in hot water for saying that the government could not continue blaming apartheid for all its failures. President Jacob Zuma then stated at Wednesday's wreath-laying ceremony in Ekurhuleni commemorating slain SACP leader Chris Hani: "To suggest we cannot blame Apartheid for what is happening in our country now, I think is a mistake to say the least. We don't need to indicate what it is Apartheid did. The fact that the country is two in one, you go to any city, there is a beautiful part and squatters on the other side, this is not the making of democracy and we can't stop blaming those who caused it."
I do not propose to engage in what seems to me a vacuous and sterile debate. Only a special kind of thin-skinned, guilt ridden, fool will dispute the fact that we are still struggling to overcome the effects of more than 300 years of colonialism and apartheid and that South Africa is a more difficult country to govern well because of it. It would similarly require a brazen denial of reality to hold that our democratically elected government should not take some responsibility for specific governance failures of the past 20 years.
Instead, I would like to take a broader view of the way in which many invoke, remember and politically deploy the past to advance their own interests. To this end I would argue that – in South Africa at least – how you engage with the past is profoundly political. But because of the explosive political power of the past and the real and imagined memory of it, there is a tendency to simplify the past to suit individuals' emotional and political or other selfish needs.
It is unavoidable that most people selectively shine the spotlight on those parts of their own past that reveal them to be either (tragic, misunderstood or strong) heroes or victims. Most people aim that spotlight away from the dark corners where the betrayals, the compromises, the cowardly silences and the active participation in (or collaboration with) the oppression and exploitation of others dangerously lurk.
Erasing the past
I suspect that this is why so many white South Africans insist that we should "move on" from the past, that we should stop dwelling on what happened during 300 years of colonialism and that those who mention apartheid – a crime against humanity – are playing the "tired" race card. This insistence on erasing the past is a sad and often desperate (but ultimately a poignantly futile) attempt to nostalgically reclaim a cleansed and whitewashed past that could never have existed.
After all, how is it possible to be nostalgic about your own past when that past is littered with memories of racial oppression and exploitation from which you, your parents or grandparents benefited – often handsomely?
Better to shut out those memories and reminisce nostalgically about that weekend at the seaside (on a whites only beach); that first kiss (on a whites only park bench); that first visit to the Garlick's Tearoom with your gloved and smartly hatted mother (travelling on the whites only bus) in order to create an invented life that is worthy of your imagined pure white skin. Even if you are a born free, this often violent rejection of a certain version of our past must signal a tragic yearning for an existence in which your parents never benefited from apartheid and all had secret "Free Nelson Mandela" posters under their beds.
The fact is that the past is almost always far messier and morally dubious than our yearning for a whitewashed history would suggest. We (or our parents) did ride in those whites only busses. We (or our parents) did buy stamps at the whites only post office counter. We (or our parents) did live in whites only suburbs and did drive on roads constructed by the exploited labour of black South Africans. We (or our parents) did attended schools paid for by the taxes of mining companies which thrived on the apartheid migrant labour system.
When some white people insist on maintaining selective amnesia about the past (remembering a small number of nostalgic personal events about the "good old days") they ironically signal that deep down they know that their past – something ordinary people in a relatively normal country would feel nostalgic about – is contaminated by apartheid and their direct or indirect involvement in it.
This denial of the past and the insistence on "moving on" is therefore both tragic and dangerous.
Tragic, because how can we fashion a meaningful life for ourselves if we have to admit that apartheid has contaminated our memories and has robbed us of our ability to yearn for a mythical "innocent" childhood (which, if we have to be honest, could not have been innocent if we were white children in apartheid South Africa).
But also dangerous, because how can we come to terms with the lingering effects of past injustice and how can we begin to rectify it if we cannot bear to admit that we are beneficiaries of that injustice?
Of course, apartheid South Africa was a messy, dehumanising place and it was not only white people who were contaminated by this past. The system forced many black South Africans to make often difficult and morally complex compromises: some became police officers in the apartheid police and arrested fellow black South Africans on pass law offences; others worked in the "Bantu Administration" and actually administered pass laws; yet others became petty bureaucrats in Bantustans and implemented the policies of the apartheid state while drawing a relatively good salary. Others had to take on an obsequious attitude towards white employers in order to hold on to jobs that would pay at least the pittance needed to ensure their family's economic survival.
I sometimes wonder whether the reason South Africa can feel like such a sick and dysfunctional place is that so few of us have been brave enough or honest enough to face – really face – the moral complexities of our own pasts and those of our fellow South Africans. How can we heal and move on (as the proponents of moral amnesia demand) when we cannot admit – even to ourselves – how broken we are because of the ways we (and our parents and grandparents) survived met 'n helse lot pyn in hierdie land, ja ["survived with a hell of a lot of pain in this country, yes"] – a quote from an Afrikaans song about Hillbrow written by Johannes Kerkorrel)?
This kind of honesty is not politically expedient. It has the potential to humanise us all and to rob the politicians like Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma of the power to invoke an idealised and (for some of us at least) a completely false and non-existent past in order to silence their critics and to cloak themselves in the mantle of (often) imagined heroism.
By saying this I am of course not suggesting that there were not true heroes: Bram Fischer, Chris Hani and thousands of (often vaguely remembered or non-remembered) participants in the struggle among them. Some people really were heroes. Neither am I in any way positing a moral equivalence between black South Africans and white South Africans and the choices they made during apartheid. That would be obscene.
What I am arguing is that despite these general contours of our (one day to be shared) history – a history of struggle against injustice that we should never forget in order never to become party to the oppression of others – the past is far messier, morally complex, and interesting than some of our politicians would have us believe. When we confront our own messy past and admit to our own failings and the failings of our family members, friends and even some of our heroes, are we not taking the first step towards a state of grace? And when we deny the moral complexity of our past, do we not imprison ourselves in a cage of denial, condemned to continue raging against the Other?
This article was originally published on consitutional expert Pierre de Vos's blog Constitutionally Speaking.