Let us expand our collective memory

Democracy at last: Quite a few of us remember standing in the long queues to vote on April 27 1994. (Kevin Carter/AFO)

Democracy at last: Quite a few of us remember standing in the long queues to vote on April 27 1994. (Kevin Carter/AFO)

When we think of Freedom Day, we conjure up memories of long queues snaked around voting stations. For many of us too young to remember South Africa’s first democratic elections, these memories are largely imagined, based on what we are told. But this history would be incomplete without the stories we hear from our elders.

When I’ve tried to prod my parents about their memories of apartheid and the first democratic vote, they usually get tight-lipped.
It’s not that they’re oblivious to the importance of apartheid’s legacy today, but their disappointment in what South Africa has become has left them too sore to talk about a past in which they had better dreams.

What they hoped for was a country where their children wouldn’t have to worry about racism or hitting glass ceilings because of their race or gender. But even in the early 2000s, when I entered high school, my father would ask me every so often: “Does everyone sit together?”

I knew what he was alluding to and, even though I didn’t fully understand why I felt the need to lie, I did. “Yes, we all sit together,” I would answer. I must have been a bad liar if he was still asking that question until I matriculated.

Despite my parents’ reluctance to talk about apartheid, they occasionally let something slip. My mom would take me back to our old home, instilling in me a nostalgia for a time when she was organising hideouts for people who fought on the front line. Some of these people will never have their names written in history books or on monuments, but oral history has taught me who they are.

Just before the big events of 1994, my family lived in an area in Cape Town called Rondebosch East. Nearby were Belgravia, Thornton and Klipfontein roads. Mention these streets to the elders in Athlone and they will tell you about the riots that took place there, the youngsters who took to the streets – some of them not really in it for the politics, but more for the fun of rebellion.

Some of us, who have been lucky to sit around tables with people who were there, know a bit more. There are things that are rarely published in popular history, such as the deals struck between gangs and political activist organisations in the fight against apartheid, as well as the lingering speculation about what really went down in the negotiated settlement.

There is seldom enough evidence to back up these claims, but such anecdotes reveal things about our society today. We can see it in the way gangs still have a stranglehold over parts of the Cape Flats, and in the continued pushback against the rainbow dream.

It’s not just previous generations who are disillusioned with South Africa’s reconciliation project. Young South Africans, too, are finding platforms to share their experience of a South Africa in which structural racism keeps the wheels of inequality well oiled.

We see how young South Africans understand that their view of the present is largely built on their imagination of the past through their throwbacks to Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, and in their recollection of struggle songs.

When we were younger, a cousin and I sometimes used to exclaim: “How did our parents survive apartheid?” We couldn’t imagine the horror of the various levels of violence they witnessed and endured.

Recently, I did a story on collective memory relating to the Pan Africanist Congress anti-pass march in Mofolo, Soweto, in 1960. It happened at the same time as the Sharpeville massacre, but many of the people I spoke to could only remember Soweto from the time of the 1976 uprising onwards.

The elders, grandparents and great-grandparents who can remember a long way back are edging closer to death. South Africa’s collective memory is incomplete, propelling a narrative that works largely in the interest of dominant political parties, while stories of people and places we should know about are gathering dust, forgotten and untold.

Freedom in South Africa is not just about issues such as racism, poverty and inequality. It’s also the opportunity we have to expand our collective memory so that we know more than just what we are told to know.

I could’ve spent more time with my grandparents when they were alive. I enjoyed the stories they told of their childhoods, of working in butcher’s shops, raising my aunts and uncles during a time of oppression, and making jokes at the expense of the apartheid police.

Nowadays, stories are dominated by youth activism. But we need to make space for older members of our society too. As they die, parts of our history die with them and are buried forever.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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