Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 6 April 2021

Memory is a weapon, but wilful forgetting is deadlier, and a greater threat to South Africa

Threats by the EFF-RET axis to shut down the country, the proliferation of paramilitary groups, comical and sartorially laughable as they may be, represent an absence of memory at the best of times and, at the worst of times, a case of wilful forgetting.

Some of my research, mainly interviews and meetings that the lockdown of last March cut short, focused on memory. I focused on the lack of memory and the wilful unremembering that define the rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who, for all intents and purposes, now share ideological solidarities with the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) crowd. Each of the two main axis members has its respective band of corpulent cadres in ill-fitting polyester camouflage uniforms that, for now, make a greater contribution to the performance arts than they represent any serious and well-drilled military formation. Theatrical as it may seem, this RET-EFF Axis – with buttons straining to hold their jumpsuits together around the revolutionary dyspepsia – does, nonetheless, pose a great threat to South Africa, one that has to be avoided at all costs.

Back at the start of last year, I had already done the theoretical and (global) historical research, but needed to get back to the youths I had met in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, and in archival material in Gauteng to get some firm evidence. As for most of the EFF Student Command whom I spoke to, their response to my questions about the political settlement of the 1990s was met with a shrug of the shoulders. Some of them had not been born, yet. Others were too young to remember….

So, my particular focus was on the young people who supported the EFF, and their very short memories, or a complete absence of just how violent the decades before 1994 were, and how close South Africa came to descending into a bloodbath. Consistent with populist rhetoricians, the older ones, who were little nippers in 1990, have mastered the dark arts of unremembering, of confabulation, and spinning romantic, revolutionary rhetoric yarns around higgledy-piggledy arranged nails of uninspired works of string art. They threaten to take the country back to a time of violence, and the edge of state collapse that we verged on from 1985, from which the Mandela administration pulled us back.

Bloodbaths, necklaces and decapitations

The decade between 1985 and 1995, that period that is either unknown or wilfully unremembered by the axis members, was marked by gruesome violence. The cause of much of the carnage that most veteran journalists covered – I started covering it more intensely after the first State of Emergency was declared in 1985, as a photojournalist and reporter – was mainly between “factions”. It was a clash perceived to be between the United Democratic Front/ANC and Inkatha, with the apartheid state’s security forces (the South African Defence Force and South African Police) playing deadly roles in fomenting violence. 

We are at a point now when factions in the ANC, the loose affiliation of Radical Economic Transformation, and the EFF (and their various toy soldiers) have threatened to shut down South Africa, and somehow return to the trenches (my interpretation). Briefly stated, to the extent that it’s reasonable to connect the individual world of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association and EFF paramilitarism to broader social structures – in other words they are a social group rather than a military organisation – they embody all the pathologies of a dysfunctional state hollowed out by corruption and maladministration, a ruling elite characterised by greed and avarice, and a society at odds with itself in which everyone wants to get as much out of the system as possible before it all collapses.

Anyway, rhetorically, and to the extent that they have a strategic plan or an objective, the axis (and their silent supporters) seem unhappy that white, or “non-African blacks” have any kind of presence; that whites somehow continue to manipulate Africans, and control South Africa’s purse strings, and that the political settlement of the 1990s, and the Constitution are to blame for everything that ails the country. For what it’s worth, there’s a homology in there about the way that Benito Mussolini used the Italian Constitution to gain access to power, and once he came to power he effectively redrew the rules, and turned himself into a dictator. Recall that Malema used the Constitution to get rid of Jacob Zuma, but, like Mussolini, used it only to serve his own ends – which was to gain power.

Malema (on Codesa and the Constitution), echoes Mussolini and his fascist mate Adolf Hitler who condemned the political settlement at Versailles – because Hitler claimed it was an insult to the German people. These were some of the early parallels I established in my original research, in the weeks before South Africa shut down last March. It is worth understanding the historic contexts, and situating the RET-EFF Axis, also, in South Africa’s immediate history. 

Absence of memory and wilful forgetting

Much like the organic fascists of the 1920s, Malema has a venomous (mis)understanding of the process that led to the South African settlement. People like Ace Magashule and Carl Niehaus should remember, but they don’t. This suggests that they share a scorched-earth approach to South Africa’s future. Threats by the axis to shut the country down, the proliferation of paramilitary groups, comical and sartorially laughable as they may be at times, represent an absence of memory, at the best of times, and at the worst of times, a case of wilful forgetting. 

Some of us who worked as journalists between 1985 and 1995 bore witness to horrific carnage. In 2017 I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was haunted by images of burning bodies – one was of a woman being necklaced while heavy rocks were dropped on the head of her dead body – of sliced faces and limbs. (In Sekhukhune I came close to being necklaced myself.) We remember, today, the violence around South Africa and in neighbouring states. 

Every week we witnessed death and destruction of families and communities (and individuals), in Soweto, Sebokeng, Thokoza, Kagiso, Katlehong, Vosloorus, Krugersdorp, and at men’s hostels in Jeppe, Mpetla, Jabulani, Nancefield, Denver, George Goch, at places like Morafe and Mzimhlope.

The concept of “fake news” has become commonplace today. And it is difficult, nigh impossible, to believe what any politician says, but we had to deal with misinformation and manipulation of the media during that deadly decade. One leaflet was distributed in black townships in the winter of 1990, and later identified as part of a “classic destabilisation tactic” used by security forces at the time. The pamphlet called on Zulu people to vacate hostels in the old Transvaal, and return to Natal. The pamphlet also instructed ANC supporters to “attack Zulu-speakers and destroy their homes and property”. The appeal also cited meetings held to incite Inkatha supporters to violence against fellow hostel dwellers and township residents in hostels in and around the East Rand and Soweto. The pamphlet read:

“We want to destroy the Zulus. We want to drive them out of the hostels as we did in Sebokeng. We should cause conflict amongst them, so that we can take the land, while they are still fighting. We have to end their Zuluness of which they are proud about it [sic]. They deceive themselves as a powerfull [sic] nation which will take over after De Klerk. There will be no peace in S.A. as long as the Zulus are still powerfull [sic]. Let us destroy them all in S.A. in townships, hostels, and in the working places. Let us burn down their houses in townships and drive them out. Down with Zulus.” (See this link)

On one occasion I photographed Bishop Desmond Tutu saving a man’s life. A crowd was about to necklace the man because he was accused of being a spy. In the deadly decade of 1985 to 1995, we had no time to look for villains. Every day we walked through pools of blood, stepping over severed limbs scattered across killing fields, with bodies piling up from Boipatong and Bisho to Crossroads and Kagiso. In neighbouring countries I recorded and photographed victims of SADF raids on “terrorists”. 

The violence of the 1980s continued into the 1990s. In September 1990 armed gangs massacred 26 commuters on a train between Soweto and Johannesburg. It was considered at the time that the silence of the killers and their style of attack was “similar to that of rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo)”, which led to speculation that white security officials were instrumental in the attack. 

Violence continued after April 1994. An estimated 1,600 people were killed in political violence in 1994, and 837 in 1995. Some 500,000 were displaced from their homes – about 6% of the population of the province.

South Africa, and its future, were held hostage by its own people. The National Party would not relinquish control easily. The police and defence force were backing factions in the battles between the UDF/ANC and Inkatha. The ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress, Azapo all had “military wings”. The far-right AWB was threatening to take the country down in flames, to secure what they considered to be their land and their culture. All the while “the economy” was in meltdown….

It was against this backdrop that decisions were made, that compromises were reached (for what it’s worth, Malema having tea with Jacob Zuma, whom he helped depose, was a compromise), and a democratic order was established. The warring factions laid down their arms (most of them, anyway), and the job of completing the Constitution took on an urgency. And when it was completed, and adopted by Parliament, it effectively drew a line under the cruelties of the past. To be sure, the structural injustices of the preceding era remain, and they may, for a while yet, be felt among the most marginalised of people. The Constitution is not to blame for this, much like the Constitution of Rwanda was not responsible for the genocide, nor is the Constitution of Nepal to blame for the rampant poverty in that country.

The young people and the adults – from Quintin Ndlozi to Julius Malema – either do not know, or refuse to accept the conditions and multiplicity of contexts that threatened to destroy South Africa during that deadly decade. One would imagine that Ace Magashule would remember those days of bloodshed and horror. I certainly do. And how. DM

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  • A well written and timely piece that deserves serious attention. The mob is a mindless terrible thing and everybody loses. Clear leadership and a promotion of our common identity as South Africans in order to thrive is critical. We have so much potential to succeed.

  • Having recently re read some SA history one thing is clear. The tribes have been fighting each other for centuries. The brief interlude of Europeans gave the africans a common enemy. Only two countries in Africa have prospered under independance.

  • Memory is a strange thing – very much subject to the character, ethics, and values of the owner. Remember how Madiba befriended his jailer ? What character and integrity does that kind of attitude speak to ? Quite remarkable. Resorting to or encouraging violence and hatred is the easy way out !

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