OPINION – What does being South African mean?

Far from the Beloved Country, the feeling of being South African is stronger than ever. I watch the State of the Nation address in rapture from my bedroom in Montmartre, I scour the grocery stores for Rooibos tea and I make my own chutney. What, though, does ‘being South African’ mean? And should it mean anything at all?

Walking through the Paris metro sometime last week, I came upon an old pamphlet announcing an exhibition of photography at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. The subject of the retrospective was a South African, the renowned Cape Town artist Pieter Hugo, and so I decided to go. On a frosty winter’s night I ventured into the city’s furthest southern reaches and found the gallery, a small building of only two rooms hidden down a cul-de-sac in a residential neighbourhood. A handful of very alternative-looking French people ambled slowly in circles, some with a glass of wine in one hand, admiring Hugo’s work.

I began to follow them. As I moved from one photograph to the next – an old woman at home in Mitchell’s Plain, a homeless man sleeping under a tree on Green Point commons, a group of teenagers in an abandoned parking lot of Hillbrow – I became more and more overwhelmed by a sensation that I couldn’t, at first, place. The last piece in the series depicted an elderly man lying on a length of cardboard at the war memorial in Springs, a small-town church and general store in the background. Standing in front of it, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I began to cry. The other gallery patrons glanced at me awkwardly, shuffling further away as a deep well of emotion bubbled up and overflowed from my tear-ducts. And this from someone whose eyes stayed dry in Titanic.

What had happened was quite simple. Thousands of miles away from home, in a cool, fluorescent-lit room filled with French-speaking strangers, I felt a profound stirring of South African-ness. To these others, Hugo’s photographs were just interesting, well-composed, sometimes-dramatic works of art. His subjects were foreign and anonymous. After their visit, they would have another glass of wine from Bordeaux and forget about the whole thing. To me, though, this was home – I had seen that man before, looked into that woman’s eyes, walked past that building, felt the roughness of that grass. That is what, eventually, made me cry – a sudden, unexpected, unadulterated rush of memory.

In one of my classes, I study alongside twenty-two other students of twenty-one different nationalities (there are two Argentinians). We discuss the news from Syria and tell jokes and argue about Quentin Tarantino movies, things we can all share equally and across borders. But beneath this layer of globalised commonality lies a raw, intransigent, untransmutable difference. I cannot truly know what it means to be Argentinian, what it feels like, and they cannot truly know South Africa. Every society has a unique shared experience, a collective memory, that only becomes more conspicuous when one is removed from one’s home. This is what Jonny Steinberg refers to in his recent piece about returning to South Africa: “There is nonetheless something for which I know I ache, and it is only to be found in my native land. When I lock eyes with a stranger on Johannesburg’s streets, there is a flicker, a flash communication, so fast it is invisible, yet so laden that no words might describe it.”

Collective memory is different from history – where the latter seeks a clearer, more accurate vision of the past, the former describes a feeling in the present. Collective memory is also different from individual memory; in the words of the French writer Pierre Nora, “memory is by nature multiple yet specific, collective and plural yet individual”. Every person has his or her singular experience, that which distinguishes the individual from every other. And yet a society can also have a ‘memory’, a symbolism, a collection of shared traumas and experiences, that its individual members identify intimately with.

In France, a country steeped in the past, collective memory plays an important role. In the years following WWII, France struggled with the role it had played in the conflict. Memories of the crimes committed by the Vichy regime and the widespread French collaboration with the Nazis’ purges were repressed, hidden and forgotten, only to re-emerge in the 1960s through the efforts of authors like Patrick Modiano. Sometimes remembering is painful – for Charles de Gaulle, charged with reconstituting the French Republic, individual memories had to be sacrificed at the altar of national unity and reconciliation. A parallel dynamic continues today – the French students with whom I study are deeply defensive of their national identity, still enamoured of the sanctified heroes of the French revolutions and resistance. Two weeks ago, one of my French classmates managed to deliver a twenty-minute presentation on the economic history of Vietnam without once mentioning the devastating effects of French colonialism. This rose-tinted national narrative, emblematised by the French flag and La Marseillaise and the Bastille, is supposed to bind the country together.

Therein, however, lies the danger – as Edward Said points out, “Collective memory is not an inert and passive thing, but a field of activity in which past events are selected, reconstructed, maintained, modified and endowed with political meaning.” At times, collective memory can supersede the individual, overpower and even erase it, becoming exclusive and destructive. Said takes the example of Israel and Palestine, where two starkly different collective memories clash over the same places and events, narratives of history manipulated to suit political imperatives. In South Africa, our own nation-building project is infused with a particular memory-narrative; the Rainbow Nation, the miracle democracy, the non-racial dream of Nelson Mandela.

In recent years, this façade has begun to crack, as individual memories and lived experiences rise to the surface and contradict it, as the chaotic scenes in Parliament chip away at it. We are a country of a thousand conflicting memories: how can the experience of a white South African, nestled in quiet Houghton, be reconciled with that of a black victim of Apartheid’s worst brutality? Indeed, our social conflicts seem at times to be an elegy to Freud: the repression of memories of past crimes, the projection of white emotional guilt onto the failures of the ANC government, the apparent need to forget in order to forgive and move on. Life in South Africa is strange in this way: beneath a veneer of harmony and reconciliation lies a more troubled social and psychological truth.

Ultimately, any state is defined by its success in striking a balance between cohesion and inclusiveness, negotiating a middle ground between the dangers of exclusivist nationalism on the one hand and the risk of social disintegration on the other. A country needs a national narrative, a unifying collective memory, in order to cohere. But it must also allow for difference, accommodate contradiction, and embrace plurality. As William Kentridge put it in a recent lecture at UCT: “South Africa today is a place in which the edges are important, where that which does not fit in has to be acknowledged, and where contradiction is central”.

We are all bound up together, in ways arbitrary but permanent, as occupiers of a particular place in a particular time, as vessels of a particular collective memory. The fact of being South African is embedded deep in our subconscious, rising to the fore as we gaze at a familiar photograph in a gallery in Paris or touch down on Johannesburg soil. We would do well to remember this, and to recognise it as something we all share. We don’t have to be on the same page – at the end of any such attempt lies only amnesia – but we do, at least, have a few sentences in common, wherever we are.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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