Hid­den his­to­ries of home

The retelling of our his­tory chal­lenges the con­fines of what an ac­tivist can be, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

De­cem­ber is a time when many of us Black mi­grants and labour­ers re­turn to our home­lands. Our home­com­ing brings the op­por­tu­nity to re­con­nect with our fam­i­lies and friends and, at times, with our an­ces­tors by en­gag­ing in cul­tural cer­e­monies. How­ever, dur­ing my re­cent time at home in Ez­i­be­leni kuKo­mani po­lit­i­cal mem­o­ries and his­to­ries were re-re­mem­bered and re­told. My brother ex­ca­vated a sup­pressed as­pect of our fam­ily’s and com­mu­nity’s his­to­ries, namely that var­i­ous houses in our neigh­bour­hood were used to store weapons for Umkhonto weSizwe, in­clud­ing a shack at the back of our four-roomed home; a few teach­ers worked as un­der­cover op­er­a­tives for the lib­er­a­tion move­ment; street com­mit­tees were used for carv­ing out mo­bil­i­sa­tion strate­gies; and he was part of a group of young men trained for po­ten­tial war.

Many of these young men did not at­tend school; for six years and more in the late 1980s and early 1990s they en­gaged in po­lit­i­cal train­ing in spa­ces like grave­yards to avoid de­tec­tion. They would also par­tic­i­pate in po­lit­i­cal ac­tions to defy and weaken the apartheid state.

To­day, many of these young men oc­cupy the tav­erns of Ez­i­be­leni, not hav­ing an ed­u­ca­tion or any form of em­ploy­ment. Al­co­hol has be­come a cop­ing mech­a­nism to deal with the em­bod­ied trauma and anx­i­ety that em­anates from hav­ing been an an­ti­a­partheid ac­tivist.

The re­al­ity is that their bod­ies are no longer seen as use­ful, and their cur­rent strug­gles are rel­e­gated to the mar­gins of our pub­lic mem­ory. Their daily ex­is­tence is a re­minder of Wole Soyinka’s The Bur­den of Mem­ory, the Muse of For­give­ness lec­ture where he notes that “the vic­tims are alive and in need of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion while their vi­o­la­tors – as a recog­nis­able group – pur­sue their priv­i­leged ex­is­tence, se­cure in their spoils of a sor­did his­tory”.

This po­lit­i­cal his­tory and mem­ory, which speaks to our present, is worth record­ing.

The mem­o­ries that my fam­ily shared with me came in glimpses; they are not com­plete truths of the col­lec­tive his­to­ries and strug­gles of my com­mu­nity. And these tales may not be le­git­imised in hege­monic forms of pub­lic mem­ory. Artist and aca­demic Nkiru Nzegwu helps us un­der­stand the rea­son for this: “We are en­cour­aged to re­mem­ber and when we do we find that mem­ory is viewed as un­re­li­able. His­tory is equated to tex­tual doc­u­men­ta­tion, a process that robs us of our mem­ory that has care­fully been pre­served in modes that do not eas­ily give up the story.”

Pumla Gqola, Black Fem­i­nist scholar and ac­tivist, af­firms this ar­gu­ment and main­tains that to be­gin to un­tan­gle the “frag­ments” of slave mem­ory, for in­stance, “re­quires a mul­ti­lay­ered ap­proach”.

Gqola and Nzegwu’s writ­ings fur­ther find rel­e­vance in re­la­tion to Nthabiseng Mot­semme’s work on the SA Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. She notes that we need to break free from the idea of view­ing “mem­ory as an ob­ject” and fur­ther­more, to “em­brace the no­tion that it in­cludes em­bod­ied prac­tices found in the per­son next to us in ev­ery­day life”. There­fore, con­ver­sa­tions with our sib­lings and el­ders in our com­mu­ni­ties may as­sist us on the path to un­cov­er­ing the hid­den his­to­ries of the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle; his­to­ries and mem­o­ries which are ex­cluded from our of­fi­cial ar­chives and records.

The sig­nif­i­cance of re-re­mem­ber­ing our his­tory is im­por­tant for the present, as cul­tural the­o­rist Stu­art Hall echoes: “The past con­tin­ues to speak to us”; it speaks to us in our ma­te­rial re­al­ity where the faces of poverty con­tinue to be Black, while two white men own the same wealth as the bot­tom half of the pop­u­la­tion, as Ox­fam re­ports.

Thus, ar­chiv­ing our his­tory which is em­bod­ied in our present re­al­ity finds rel­e­vance in our present quest to de­colonise the coun­try. This ven­ture is cru­cial be­cause the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle is evoked in ways that in­clude and ex­clude. Hi­er­ar­chies are re­in­forced to erase the ef­forts of or­di­nary Black South Africans who con­trib­uted to the end of apartheid. We live in a coun­try where the pol­i­tics of mem­ory is con­tested, a post-apartheid dis­pen­sa­tion which has al­tered our po­lit­i­cal his­tory and mem­ory in what Black Fem­i­nist economist Liepollo Pheko calls “anti-his­tor­i­cal” and “anti-mem­ory”. This is char­ac­terised by de­politi­cised and in­di­vid­u­alised his­to­ries of the lib­er­a­tion strug­gles in or­der to ad­vance a myth of the “rain­bow na­tion” and the nar­ra­tive of the ANC as our only “po­lit­i­cal saviour”.

Fur­ther­more, in re­cent con­ver­sa­tions on #FeesMustFall with Black peo­ple, some have said: “niyasil­welwa” (“you are fight­ing for us”), ac­com­pa­nied with words of en­cour­age­ment to con­tinue the strug­gle for free de­colonised ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, the his­tory I learnt of in Ez­i­be­leni has reem­pha­sised my be­lief that a fight for jus­tice will be a col­lec­tive one – our churches, teach­ers, com­mu­nity mem­bers will have to par­tic­i­pate in var­i­ous ways. There­fore, the retelling of this his­tory chal­lenges the con­fines of who and what an ac­tivist can be. There’s an ur­gent need to af­firm the his­to­ries and mem­o­ries of in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties whose con­tri­bu­tions have been hid­den. Per­haps the spread of this his­tory and pub­lic mem­ory will re­sult in more com­mu­ni­ties fac­ing in­jus­tices to­day, re­al­is­ing that they come from a lin­eage of col­lec­tive strug­gle. These nar­ra­tives may em­power our com­mu­ni­ties in present col­lec­tive strug­gles for free ed­u­ca­tion, gen­der jus­tice and the re­turn of black peo­ple’s stolen land. Per­haps it may fuel our burn­ing hopes for jus­tice.

In our var­i­ous small towns and vil­lages, it’s im­por­tant for us to recog­nise that we come from a lin­eage of “wor­thy an­ces­tors”, as Xolela Mangcu terms it. We too can be­come wor­thy an­ces­tors in the fight to guar­an­tee a just future for black peo­ple.

Dlakavu is a stu­dent

TALK TO US In what way does the past con­tinue to speak to you, and do you think you will be a wor­thy an­ces­tor?

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PHOTO: GALLO IMAGES / MEDIA24 NEWS­PA­PER AR­CHIVES

THE NEXT STEP SA Com­mu­nist Party leader Chris Hani and politi­cian Win­nie Madik­ize­laMan­dela hand over the Umkhonto weSizwe man­i­festo, which was pub­lished on De­cem­ber 16 1961 in Jo­han­nes­burg

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