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No country for nostalgic young people

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Nkateko Mabasa is a journalist at Daily Maverick

Forget nostalgia – it’s a traitor. Rather re-evaluate everything you believe about yourself.

A cold winter morning at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. It’s 5am on May 25, dawn is yet to break, but already long queues have formed, people eager to gain admittance to the stadium. They’ve come from all over South Africa to witness the 2019 presidential inauguration.

The sun rises and the crowd sways to music from the Soweto Gospel Choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other artists.

President Cyril Ramaphosa enters the stadium with his motorcade and the crowd sings, “Phakama Ramaphosa, ixesha lifikile” – arise Ramaphosa, the time has come.

The next day I met author and essayist Sisonke Msimang at a coffee shop in Rosebank, Johnnesburg. She asked whether the ceremony had evoked any nostalgia in me.

Nostalgia is for old people,” I laughed.

I have no recollection of South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, nor do I remember Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. When Mandela stepped down as president I was only seven years old. 

Many of the people who attended Ramaphosa’s inauguration seemed old enough to have experienced that defining moment in our country’s history. A time when the hope of a prosperous and equal nation was palpable. 

Now, after 25 years of increasing inequality, shocking unemployment rates, a failing education system, a collapsing healthcare system and government corruption, we surely need an uplift… something to give us hope.

At the coffee shop, Msimang remarked that on her arrival back to South Africa from Australia, she noticed how the mood of the country had changed, although everything else seemed the same.

Msimang went on to write an essay on nostalgia and the “sentimentality” it trains us to accept, she wrote about “the cravenness that national pomp and pageantry seek to hide”. 

She stated that hope for South Africa lies with the young generation who have been “reared to accept that they have no need for nostalgia” and that “the future belongs to those who have no memories of Mandela, and no illusions” about the New Dawn.  

Nostalgia for 1994 is often used to distract the citizenry from political corruption and government neglect, but unfortunately young people too are prone to nostalgia. 

It’s evident when they discuss the #FeesMustFall movement, when they reminisce of a time they had found their generational mission. They do not see the period between 2015 and 2017 as a time of national crisis, but remember their revolutionary days with fondness. 

Even when they talk of the difficulty of #adulting, young people wax nostalgic about the bliss of childhood, before they had to earn a living, pay their own bills and accept responsibility for their own sustenance.

Young people have learnt selective amnesia from their parents who accepted 1994 as a peaceful transition of national triumph, regardless of the evidence of state-sponsored violence against communities.

The human condition means we will seek respite from prolonged pain, suffering and political struggle. And we are willing to lie to ourselves about our reality.

How else could South Africans have slept at night faced with the horrors of apartheid and crippling poverty?

And so the young lions of #FeesMustFall look back nostalgically on their own moment of triumph. Their thoughts of a meaningful struggle console them that it was worth going to the brink of despair and back. 

This is despite the fact that they did not fully achieve the goal of free education, that the curriculum remains colonised and outsourcing continues at university campuses. 

There are also some students who criticise student leaders for selling out the #FeesMustFall movement through secret deals with political parties.

These students are on the periphery of South Africa’s political system – the place where radical activists stood during the transition to democracy and cried out like the prophets of old, screaming to deaf ears that the secret “talks before the talks” were condemning millions of South Africans to poverty, landlessness and inequality.

The students who stand in the margins, attempting to continue to fight for the goals of the #FeesMustfall movement are also nostalgic about their heroes – the pan-Africanists they model themselves on, who stayed aloof from the national euphoria of 1994.

In her essay on nostalgia, Msimang concluded: “We are just a nation, trying our best, falling short and clinging to the stories we want to believe about ourselves.”

Whether it is the narrative of a peaceful transition and its accompanying euphoria that Ramaphosa’s inauguration reminds the nation of, or stories of fulfilling their generational mission that #FeesMustFall relates to the youth, nostalgia thrives in South Africa. 

The age of the #MeToo movement offers a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the nostalgia of our childhoods inundated with memories of Bill Cosby on our TV screens and R Kelly in the background. 

These men, and countless others who have meant so much to so many people, have forced us to break with the nostalgia that comes with past memories in the presence of their art. 

By coming to terms with these men and their violations of women, we are offered an opportunity to rethink formative memories that have become part of our consciousness. 

To transcend nostalgia we must be willing to re-evaluate everything we have come to believe about ourselves. DM

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