Defend Truth


A burning desire: To learn from the past or destroy the present?


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

As discussions from universities are increasingly dividing society into black and white, we are at risk of repeating apartheid's erasure of knowledge and memory. What happened to dialogue and entertaining a thought without accepting it?

On 11 February, as President Jacob Zuma was preparing to deliver his State of the Nation Address, South Africa marked two important days. It was on 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela strode out of Victor Verster prison in Paarl like a colossus. As South Africans nothing had quite prepared us for that momentous day; the once vilified Madiba, fist in the air, now a free man. Could our country have imagined such a day of overwrought emotion as hundreds of thousands waited for him on the Grand Parade in Cape Town?

As Zuma spoke in Parliament in 2016, the contrasts could not have been greater. How did we descend so fast from the iconic, principled Madiba to a compromised president determined to use the state as a personal means of patronage? How did we find ourselves in a country with a founding president as a bridge-builder that had a president who would only sow division and govern in his own interests? But South Africa is a country laced with irony. As Zuma spoke, barbed wire surrounded Parliament and the people were completely absent.

Meanwhile, down the road at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, David Kramer’s new musical, District Six — Kanala was having its opening night. For it was on 11 February 1966 that District Six was declared a “whites only” area as over 60,000 people in the District were left to watch their homes being bulldozed. The “coloured” families moved out of the centre of town would be relocated courtesy of the apartheid government to what has become known as the Cape Flats and places such as Lavender Hill and Bonteheuwel. That single act changed Cape Town’s spatial landscape forever. It changed the fundamental fabric of our city and today District Six remains a wasteland as bureaucrats still wrestle over land claims.

Cities are about the people in them and the stories they have to tell. Cities are about diversity. No one tells the stories of Cape Town or South Africa better than David Kramer, who produced District 6 — Kanala specifically to mark the 50th anniversary of the forced removals. Together with his late musical partner, Taliep Petersen, Kramer has become synonymous with telling our stories sensitively and with a humour that is uniquely Cape Town and uniquely South African.

Petersen died tragically, his story intermeshed with that of the District and forced removals. The pair’s collaboration began in 1986 when the groundbreaking District 6: The Musical first played at the Baxter Theatre. That musical went on to be a huge success and as petty apartheid starting falling, audiences of all races flocked to listen, enjoy and learn. The City of Cape Town owes an enormous debt to Kramer and Petersen for creating ways to deal with our collective brokenness through their art. Marking 50 years of forced removals in The Fugard Theatre was deeply symbolic — the heart of the city now seeking a new rhythm.

So what do these two powerful events, intertwined powerfully and poignantly on 11 February 2016, teach us today as we live in a milieu where everything has to fall? Our hashtag environment sometimes has a very casual connection to the past. Our universities have lately become places of destruction; the torching of buildings and buses and the burning of artwork justified and accepted as a response to exclusion or so-called “black pain”.

Last week, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande helpfully reminded students of the mantra of the struggle days and Oliver Tambo’s rejoinder that one could “struggle and study at the same time”. Nzimande warned against the burning of artefacts and records. The argument runs that because certain artworks, or the university itself, are “products of whiteness”, students at UCT for instance were justified in burning portraits as they raided one of the university residences, Fuller Hall.

The portrait of Molly Blackburn was burnt in the process. It was Molly Blackburn who worked closely with Matthew Goniwe in Lingelihle township at Cradock on issues of rent restructuring. It was Blackburn who was instrumental in agitating for investigations into police shootings in Langa in 1985. A memorial hall was named for her at UCT.

It is trite to say we short-change ourselves and seek to repeat the past if we erase certain memories in a random and unthinking way. What point did burning Blackburn’s portrait serve if only to display ignorance of our past? Others have made the argument regarding the manner of freedom of expression in a democracy and asked what place dialogue has to play where gratuitous violence seems to be the preferred method of engagement?

District Six is a reminder that what the apartheid state did best was to break down and destroy families, communities, identities and memories. By torching and burning in a democratic South Africa, do we not do the same?

Ours is a deeply unequal society and its challenges will not be solved overnight. Our universities and other institutions are charged to educate against the backdrop of such inequality. That will require innovative leadership and also partnerships between government, students and university leadership. Yet, a climate of violence and destruction can surely have no place where intellectual pursuit has to happen? Part of the role of a university is truth-seeking; whose truth or what truth, one might ask?

The critical questions about teaching and learning, what art is hung and where, seems to be dragging us to a place of intensely narrow debate — “them and us” or, more crudely, “white or black”, let us choose. The trouble is that life is rarely as binary and the production of knowledge even less so, if at all. Surely a society which prizes intellectual pursuit understands the value of Euripides as equally as it does modern-day South African writers of whatever race?

In our haste towards a kind of nihilism or selective knowledge, we diminish ourselves and create a society which is unable to learn from its past. The danger therein is a new kind of oppression and censorship.

What Kramer’s latest production shows is that one cannot be selective about memory and drawing lessons from the past. There is a lesson in that for a younger generation attempting to airbrush history and often even portray Mandela as a traitor to the struggle, blaming him and the Constitution as the source of all our post-apartheid challenges. That argument ignores a fundamental point: all democratic systems require actors who exercise public power. Their failure is often linked to our collective failure to hold these elected actors to account. And so our Constitution is only as good as our desire to use it for a transformative purpose.

That fallacious argument aside, we threaten to become a society in which sanitised knowledge, backed by violence, becomes the new order of things. It was Milan Kundera who said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Our past must inform our present. That will include the good, the bad and the ugly. How we engage with the legacy of our colonisers and our past can only be as useful as our ability to understand context and history.

That means reading some of what we don’t like, some of what we don’t agree with, and some of what we do, then drawing our own conclusions. Open societies and universities are, after all, places where one should be able to entertain a thought without accepting it (with apologies to Aristotle) and make one’s argument by persuasion and not torching. DM


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