South Africa and the 1994 memory block

by The Editor

FEATURE: There is a strong case to be made that contemporary South African history – post 1994 – is subject to some kind of collective memory block. So horrific was apartheid, we have lost the ability properly to put current affairs in their full perspective. Inevitably any event is gauged, not against the principles that define freedom, but those gross violations suffered in the past. Remembering the past is vital but it should never blur our ability to recognise those contemporary threats to our civil liberties.

South Africa and the 1994 memory block

By: Gareth van Onselen

8 June 2012

Much time is rightly dedicated in South Africa to remembering those horrific things that define our past and the acts of bravery which helped overcome them. But time never stands still and that historical bulwark – 1994 – which separates in the public mind the old from the new, is forever diminishing further into the distance. With that, the gap in time between then and now grows ever larger and, increasingly, it is being populated with a number of deeply significant events. Some of these, when looking back at a future point, will no doubt qualify as developments of great historical importance.

It is one thing – and an invaluable one at that – with the benefit of hindsight to be able to recognise and understand what of significance happened and why; quiet another – and one requiring a great deal more skill – to be able to identify those moments as and when they unfold.

And so it is worth asking, how does a country’s history affect its ability to recognise those contemporary key moments on which history turns? If it suffers a deeply traumatic past, powerfully emotive and still fresh in the hearts and minds of its citizenry, are they able to cross that divide between the old and the new and pin point that which is important? Or, does the inevitable comparison between old and new render any such judgement impossible – the contrast between those previous horrors endured but not forgotten simply too stark, too blunt, and any such attempt simply dismissed out of hand?

History itself does not care one way or the other. It will record something as significant regardless of how people feel about it. But one cannot always wait for that kind of perspective. Current affairs demands immediate decisions and being able to discern turning points from triviality thus important, both for making the right choices and understanding progress’s path.

For many the new South Africa represents something of a historical twilight zone, the developments that define it lost to a contemporary amnesia. If anyone refers to “our history”, it is inevitably interpreted as a reference to the aberration that preceded democracy. Again though, time itself is indifferent to such considerations, it marches on; in its recent wake, a generation of South Africans born into a new democratic order. For them 1994 will likely constitute a moment of great import but not a one-way mirror, as it does for so many others. For them, our past will represent a more seamless continuum, one which runs uninterrupted up until yesterday’s news. True, if well taught, it will be marked by those significant events which have influenced history’s course, but their memory won’t stop abruptly with our first democratic election – that moment will have its rightful place in a context that stretches both backwards and forwards in time.

What is the effect of such a memory block? For one, it damages perspective: the ability properly to identify and locate significant things in their full context. This, in turn, renders one vulnerable to being taken advantage of. While each incremental encroachment on one’s human rights might never manifest in an absolute violation (or risk a very real comparison with the past) unchecked they slowly but steadily eat away at one’s freedom; each development never properly recognised for what it is and the bigger threat it represents, never decisively crushed. Without proper perspective, each is accommodated, explained away and appeased; comparatively, it is rationalised, a small price to pay given the past injustice suffered. And soon enough a general environment exists which, in its totality, does indeed constitute some dire circumstance and everyone wonders how it ever came about.

It came about because time, and with it perspective, was warped by horrors passed. Like the beaten child, their memory indelibly stained by pain, their decision-making some involuntary impulse to protect themselves, unable to befriend or trust another. And so any situation better than before is gratefully embraced. And so the vicious circle is closed on them.

It is an interesting question to ask of anyone today: are they able to identify those key moments post 1994 which, at some point in the future, will be recognised as of great historical significance? I suspect the answers will vary greatly. The reason being it is a question to which few have fully applied their mind. Every reflective occasion, from public holidays through anniversaries, we have learnt almost instinctively to cast our minds back to a time before democracy. That sort of recognition has an important place, certainly it should never be substituted, but likewise it should never be a hindrance to us widening our historical gaze. Do that, and contemporary affairs take on a different light.

18 years might well be a drop in the historical ocean, but we are a frontier democracy and this period, together with the decisions we make in it, constitute a precedent that will come to define the nature of those liberties future generations enjoy. So make no mistake, the here and now is fundamentally important.

When all is said and done, and for all the pain and hurt we harbour, time demonstrates nothing but cruel indifference. If we choose to ignore its passage and the decisions that shape its path ultimately we sacrifice our own well-being. We have a duty to pay careful attention to current affairs and to understand their context. The moment that context is isolated, a free floating bubble of history, our ability to understand the full picture is compromised and, with that, our chances of properly identifying, protecting and promoting freedom; just as surely as our ability to identify those threats to freedom is warped in turn.

History is an invaluable tool. Where it is defined by pain, it is necessary to remember, not merely to achknowledge that suffering but to ensure it is never again repeated. Beware, however, those that would evoke that pain to detract from some contemporary injustice, however mild. It is to denigrate that very memory and render any lesson it might hold denuded of its worth.

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