A new vision of the postcolonial

Thirty-seven years ago, when I arrived as a master’s student to study for my clinical psychology degree, having practised as a social worker in the rural region of Maluti, I soaked in the experience of being a student again and gained immeasurably from a range of experiences that were painful and wonderful. It was the early 1980s and, especially in this region, a time of upheaval that shook the very foundations of our lives.

The political time of your graduation is not very different from those of my generation. The only difference is that apartheid was declared by the international community a crime against humanity.

You, too, are receiving your degrees at a time of extraordinary upheaval in our country and the world, created in large part by irresponsible leadership and greed and runaway corruption.

Our country is haunted by this post-apartheid predicament — the brutality of corruption that has allowed the continuing exclusion of millions of South Africans from the full enjoyment of hard-won rights that promised a “better life for all”.

Twenty-five years after the declaration of freedom in our country, perhaps it is time for us to name this theatre of insidious violence, in terms of its transgenerational consequences on the lives of millions of South Africans, a crime against humanity. As many of the young people we have encountered in our research with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation on transgenerational trauma in Langa, Bonteheuwel and Worcester have described their experience of “freedom”, it is a time of great betrayal.


And so, I have two messages for you: first, maintain your vigilance in raising your voices in matters of justice and fairness about important matters of principle. Play whatever role you will take on with the force of moral stature, and with grace and dignity. At the same time, however, search for that balance between your right to express outrage with reason and moral wisdom.

Do not be afraid of critical awareness of your views — to interrogate your position more closely and to dare to transcend the comfort zone of your beliefs.

Universities are important centres in our societies for creating knowledge. In South Africa, they have also been centres of exclusion, limited access. They have played a role in sustaining and perpetuating certain intellectual and academic cultures.

My second message, therefore, is that for those of you who will return to do your research in postgraduate studies or postdoctoral work, question accepted assumptions that force us to view the human condition from a specific perspective, which limits our understanding of what is possible in human relationships in ways that do not take into account the unique lessons from our own contexts.

It is your turn to venture into new intellectual frontiers and to establish a new legacy of knowledge production in the many fields of the humanities.

Some of my own work has been about challenging accepted wisdoms about transformative possibilities in the aftermath of massive traumas. I have done so by returning time and again, not to the writings of great philosophers and religious or political theorists, but rather to the unique stories of people who themselves have gone through a season of darkness and despair, from irreparable historical moments that have been illuminating.

The lessons from these historical moments show that it is possible to build a new vision of the postcolonial, one that is informed by, as Rwandans say, “home-grown” ethics rooted in and productively informed by cultural practices. It is a vision espoused by, among others, Steve Biko himself, who implored us to return to our roots to find ways of reclaiming our sense of being human.

I have just returned from a week in Rwanda with a small group of colleagues, listening, being deeply mindful, and observing what it means to live with the memory of the devastation that befell that country at exactly the same time that ours was experiencing the birth of hope. In the past, I have also had the opportunity to participate in a workshop in which young Rwandans presented their research on various aspects of the post-genocide period in their country.

It is amazing to me how young researchers and scholars in Rwanda are living the vision of decolonial epistemic engagement, using their own context to open up the space of new knowledge production.

One of the studies discussed in the research workshop was based on an encounter in a facilitated group process between a woman survivor of the genocide and one of the men who perpetrated this crime. The woman described the horrific scene of mass killing that she survived during the genocide in Rwanda. She then told the group that the last time she saw the man was in a church where he shot and killed families who had sought refuge in the church.

“His hands are full of the blood of an incredible number of the Tutsi he killed in the church,” the woman said. “He was like a killing machine … and I am sure he honestly does not know how many Tutsi he killed.”

Her testimony led to uncontrollable sobbing in the room. The man then crawled out of his chair and went to kneel in front of the woman, sobbing, expressing remorse. After some relative calm, the woman, now standing next to the kneeling man, extended her hand and helped him to get up. She then embraced him and told him that she did not want to think of him as a killing machine, but “as a fellow human being and brother”, according to the researcher. The two of them “stood in an embrace with arms folded tight across each other’s backs”.

This is recognition of the other that is bestowed not from the distance, but from a place of proximity to the other’s lifeworld. It is an “experience-near” that opens up the possibility of an embodied recognition that seeks to repair the brokenness of the other — because now it has become, it is like, one’s own brokenness. These are experiences that open up opportunity for us to explore new avenues of critical inquiry.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda said in a recent speech that Rwanda is showing that restoration of human bonds is possible. He said that Rwandans have been asked to put their emotions “in a box”.

But in reality this is not possible, and so the invocation is held at the same time as the annual national commemorative periods of mourning. This is a radical approach to mourning trauma.

A group of Rwandan women we spoke to last week described it thus: “During the period of commemoration, we want to connect with the loved ones that were killed, and at this time we disengage from dialogue with the people who killed our loved ones.”

When asked how long the disengagement lasts, the response was that it ends with the end of the commemoration, “and we reconnect again and concern ourselves with the project of rebuilding our community for the sake of a transformed society for the sake of our children”.

Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote about “the banality of evil” as a condition that creates an impossibility, an unbridgeable divide. I was hardly 10 years old when her views became an established canon for what is possible in the aftermath of mass atrocity. And here we are, witnessing just the opposite in these stories that offer us the possibility of a new vision of the postcolonial, one that if nurtured and sustained through social justice programmes aimed at truly repairing the past, can restore the young generation’s hope for change.

If the level of depravity that has been captured most compellingly with Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” is fostered in an environment in which inhumanity against others thrives, then it should be possible that relationships that foster thoughtfulness and a sense of being human reproduce themselves in our relational world.

This, I think is what cultural theorist bell hooks implies when she writes that the struggle for social changes in the aftermath of historical violence should not simply be about condemning dehumanisation. Rather, it should also involve finding new ways of reclaiming our sense of being human. Black subjectivity, she argues, should be “an oppositional worldview, a consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle which also opposes dehumanisation but as that movement which enables creative, expansive self-actualisation”.

The capacity to place ourselves in the position of an other who wants to re-enter the world of moral humanity is an act of solidarity that invites the other’s sense of responsibility; it is the only way out of the madness that denies the violence of history.

Writer James Baldwin crystallises the apparent contradiction in this message when he says, to paraphrase: “Facing history does not mean that change will happen, but change cannot happen unless the painful past is faced.”

We should not forget that these are the ideas that were embodied in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which saw the emergence of emotional certainty and moral imagination, in an effort to imbue the realms of law, justice and politics with a relational cultural ethic that recognised the possibility of the humanity of perpetrators and beneficiaries of privilege for the sake of a transformed conception of society.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the research chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. This is an edited version of her speech at Rhodes University when she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree earlier this month

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Pumla Gobodo
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She graduated from Fort Hare University with a bachelor's degree and an Honours degree in psychology.

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