Twist memory and you distort identity

Like June 16, March 21 and the many dates in between, Heritage Day was another missed opportunity to advance a truthful discourse on ownership of both the past and the present.

The politics and ethics of memory present an ongoing tension for countries such as ours, which are emerging from a period of deeply fragmented recollections of what was and was not.

André Brink suggests that “the best we can do is to fabricate metaphors – that is, tell stories – in which not history, but imaginings of history are invented”. Although deeply unsatisfactory, this seems to be the narrative pursued by official historians.

Memory is an act of defiance because erasure is an instinct of conquest. Cultural identity and truthful interpretation of the past are scarce currency in South Africa. This is largely because the official archives and accounts of political exploits and the historical context of apartheid and colonialism are constructed to privilege partisan political interests.

Equally inimical is officialdom’s insistence on erasing or diminishing the wrongdoing of former oppressors. The act of remembering is nourished by deliberate and vigilant consciousness that is anchored by a strong ethical framework. It must be divested of party-political claims that clutter the national discourse.


A particularly capricious form of national identity and nationalism, often used in neocolonial states, can promote political objectives. The fabricated reconciliation, as part of South Africa’s heritage, serves the merchandising of the fictitious rainbow nation rather than the redemption of the “Afrikan” psyche. Such sentiment is difficult to reverse or reshape once wielded.

In South Africa, manufactured nation-building has come at the price of dispossession, coercive silencing and constant unremembering. Unknowing and unseeing the truth becomes a survival mechanism.

The ethics of remembering should not allow the sacrifices of the dead to be diminished by acts of political vandalism. The vandalism we witness daily has multiple locations. For example, the education system allows a colonial aesthetic to shape the minds and discourses of the young.

The heritage industry is sometimes another site of vandalism rather than a broadly representative recollection of the past 350 years of battle and the painful formation of this nation in all its contradictions.

Corrosive recollections are not unique to this country. They reflect the characteristics, power and intent of the ones who shape history.

The inquiry of memory must be accompanied by an underlying discomfort at the reality that memory is often subjective and chauvinistic. This necessitates greater space for multiple and competing narratives.

In the context of neocolonial nation-building, these narratives should be anchored to the formation and celebration of Afrikan stories, contexts, histories and herstories.

The extent of the genocide on our being, our continent, our imaginations and humanity requires an ongoing and dynamic rehabilitation of our core.

An ethical memorial framework should transfer not only political and economic power but also the sovereignty of memory and Afrikan identities.

Erasure enabled the slave trade in the Congo, which reduced the population by 70%, to be airbrushed even in national discourses. Erasure was the catalyst for the forced removal of millions of aboriginal children in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (Aotearoa) from their families, to be culturally whitewashed in cruel state orphanages or adopted into white families.

Erasure has removed Shaka from Heritage Day, and Moshoeshoe, Bambaatha, Manthatisi, Modjadji and countless others from the national calendar. The names and battles of the ones who fell and continue to fall today should be etched in our consciousness.

Heritage is always contested and the uncomfortable connection with colonial legacies is evident in the architecture around us, the food we eat, the music we hear, the languages of instruction and commerce. This hybrid of cultures should neither confuse nor befuddle our aspirations towards Afrikan consciousness embodied in our poetry, languages, literature, moments of national remembrance and ways of being.

Millions of Afrikan minds, ideas, words, thoughts, inventions, musical notes, physical efforts, intellectual endeavours and epistemic undertakings have contributed towards and built imaginations, monuments and empires across the world.

Despite this, the American and European empires remain unapologetic and impervious to the huge debts they owe to Afrikan creativity, brilliance and blood.

The interrogation of memory and heritage creates the ethical requirement of nation-building and a powerful opportunity to reframe and challenge the narratives of “reconciliation and truth” that have been efficient midwives for erasure and amnesia. It is a potent instrument of vexing political sentiment.

The democratisation of memory would end the domination of memorial discourse by those who can write or conquer media houses, where they essentially frame a narrow and often disjointed interpretation of history.

Democratisation brings the stories and accounts of communities and individuals across the sociopolitical spectrum to the centre.

Shared or social memory runs the gamut of traditions, languages, food, struggles, legends, taboos, spirituality, battles and interpretations of events and that lend themselves to the act and practice of being Afrikan. Self-knowledge is the highest form of sovereignty; any people who do not protect or even recognise multiple forms of knowing and remembering are disfiguring their identities.

The negation of one set of memories by another is inscribed by the negation of one set of experiences over another.

The politics of negation and erasure in neocolonial South Africa has led to a framing of patriotism that dislocates the Africanist and Black Consciousness contributions to the struggle. Collective thinking is corralled accordingly.

Equally problematic is the elitism and “othering” promoted by the framing and sites of heritage. Rather than being diminished to the wearing of a dashiki or seshoeshoe once a year, heritage ought to form the normative acts, symbols and forms of our daily existence.

Traditional clothing is a powerful symbol of being; rather than being fetishised once a year, it should form the tapestry of our community, workplaces and schools, until the colonial imagination is diminished. This tapestry includes the languages, names, poetry, literature and human ethics that contribute to the people we are.

Nation-building requires that we stand as witnesses to the full truth of the past and the present. It requires a critical mass comprising the plurality of the many who know, who see and who speak.

To quote one of Africa’s anti-colonial leaders, Amílcar Cabral: “The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so.”

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is a senior research fellow for the Trade Collective, an intellectual and an activist.

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