Magazine article New Internationalist

Remembrance of Things Past

Magazine article New Internationalist

Remembrance of Things Past

Article excerpt

Some time ago I spent a week in South Africa. It was an exciting time: Thabo Mbeki had just brokered the Zimbabwe accord and Jacob Zuma had just won the legal case that was to unseat Mbeki. The newspapers were full of these major political events. But what caught m'y attention was another story - the violent murder of a wealthy family of Indian origin. Such violence is not uncommon in post-apartheid South Africa. Homes in the wealthier parts of its main towns are like fortresses, alarmed and wired against intruders.

But what struck me was the coverage of this particular casein the media. There was no jumping to conclusions, no assigning of blame to a particular group of people. Had this been India, I thought, the media would have acted as investigator, judge and jury and condemned someone, no matter that they may have gone back on that judgment later. Instead, all reporting was informed by an underlying sense that much of the violence in South Africa today is connected to its violent, discriminatory past and that the important thing is to focus on how the country can move towards a more equal and inclusive future.

This sense of the past serving to build the future runs through so much that one sees in South Africa. The question of how countries memorialize, preserve and move away from their violent pasts is one that occupies many societies around the world -discussions on truth commissions, paths to reconciliation and righting historical wrongs are legion. South Africa, too, has had its share of these - its Truth and Reconciliation Commission received both criticism and appreciation. But it's one thing to deal with the past in a process, it's quite another to work with memorials and museums - fixed structures - and turn them into living histories.

This was what I found in Johannesburg. On a clear, sunny day we set off to see Constitution Hill. Halfway up the 'hill', two box-like brick structures come into view. These are remnants of the infamous prisons that housed hundreds of people - black, brown and white - who had opposed the hated apartheid regime. 'Remnants' because all that remains are two covered stairwells. You can see them through the glass windows and you can listen to a recording that describes how prisoners were made to run up and down these as a form of torture and how they made up songs to help them along the way. The voices make the story frighteningly real and remind you that the history is very recent.

South Africa has a past that is almost too unbearable to remember. Yet as a country it has adopted a unique way of memorializing the horror of apartheid, grounded in the hope of moving on to a better world. …

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