Editorial: It is time that we listen and learn

History is never neat. In the days since the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela it feels as though we are tearing ourselves apart in trying to reconcile the telling of history with who we are and what we know as truth.

We find ourselves in a vitriolic debate about our history — who did what, why did they do it, who can be trusted and who sold out.

Debate is generally a healthy component of public discourse, except this debate has devolved into a shouting match in which no one is actually listening.

This was particularly evident following a video shared by HuffPost SA last week. The video clip, which presented an interview with Madikizela-Mandela in June last year, was shared following the broadcast of the documentary Winnie on eNCA.

The documentary in itself raises important questions about the portrayal of Madikizela-Mandela in the media, questions we have also been raising in these pages over the past two weeks.

In the HuffPost video clip Madikizela-Mandela mentions Thandeka Gqubule, Anton Harber and Nomavenda Mathiane, two of whom worked as journalists for this publication. She says Gqubule wrote negative stories about her and that The Weekly Mail, of which Harber was co-editor at the time, was “anti-me and anti-ANC”. She went on to say The Weekly Mail “actually did the job for Stratcom”.

The clip was later taken down when it emerged that no comment had been sought from the journalists named. But by then it had gone viral.

The outrage following the video exposed a staggering ignorance of history. This publication began life as The Weekly Mail, an alternative newspaper after the closure of two leading liberal newspapers. The Weekly Mail criticised the government and its apartheid policies, which led to the newspaper being taken off the streets in 1988 by the government of PW Botha.

The newspaper’s focus was political and it developed into the most informed chronicler of the dying years of apartheid — the state of emergency period.

It was the leadership and vision of Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim that saw that publication grow into a trusted source of information about South Africa.

It was the work of journalists like Gqubule and Mathiane that exposed the state’s full arsenal of dirty tricks, including its use of a third force to destabilise the country. And it was this publication that would expose the apartheid state’s campaign to discredit Madikizela-Mandela. It is the same publication that chronicled the controversies of the Mandela Football Club and was sometimes critical of her.

So history is not neat.

And if we are determined to understand our past better, then we have to be comfortable enough to confront facts that disturb our world view, to be open to the possibility that our ideas could be wrong. In all of this we need to pause and think about what this is doing to us and how is it taking us forward.

This nation is grieving and one of the early stages of grief is anger. There is a lot of anger floating around. Many who saw that film were shocked into feeling that all along we’d been lied to. People jumped from “doing the job of Stratcom” to being agents of Stratcom; and the contestation about the life and legacy of Mam’Winnie, a necessary and important debate, descended into little more than ill-informed vitriol.

Instead of learning more and growing more, we appear to be dead set against disrupting our own prejudice. History is a set of layers. Any story is layered. It is textured. And it is not neat.

The Winnie documentary is one layer but it also cannot be taken, nor does it claim to be, the sum of the truth.

If we only watch the film to understand the history of Madikizela-Mandela and South Africa in the 1980s, we will remain ignorant, because it reveals just one dimension of a highly complex tale. As the film’s director, Pascale Lamche, herself has said this week, the film is supposed to be interrogation.

And it is supposed to have holes in it, because there are many more things to add to it.

Every piece of a story is exactly that, just a piece. It is one part of a whole. And no one person can claim to be the sole custodian of the truth of our history.

In the same way that the film is one layer, our newspaper coverage as The Weekly Mail is another. And both served a different purpose. We also need to be aware of the different mediums — a newspaper report at the time is different to a documentary film 30 years after the fact.

But it is essential that we are open to listening to ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with. It is essential that we are open to finding ourselves to be wrong.

A particularly disturbing feature of the past two weeks is the shouting down of people, most clearly evidenced on social media. There were people who said they were correcting history and dissenting voices ought to be silenced. The counterweight to the public outcry from the film, following the response of Sydney Mufamadi, for example, was equally shouty.

Ultimately, this inclination is disempowering. If we are prepared to listen only to the strand of history that reconciles our ideologies — then we are in danger. It is as good as a self-destruct button. 

A previous version of this editorial listed Nomavenda Mathiane as having worked for the Weekly Mail. This has been amended.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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