New Internationalist

Remembrance of things past

Issue 420

by Urvashi Butalia

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 my 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 case in 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.

Homes in the wealthier parts of its main towns are like fortresses, alarmed and wired against intruders

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.

The future, then, grows out of the past – and the past serves as a constant reminder of what must never be repeated

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. Beside the fragments of the prison there is a newer building: the Constitutional Court. Its location and its structure were deliberately chosen. With the prison stairwells in full view (one has been recreated inside the Court) you are reminded that there is no going back to that time. In addition, the Court’s walls were made with bricks from the dismantled prisons – they’re visible, unplastered and bare. Every single one of the sixteen justices who sit in the Court cannot but be aware of those bricks and the history they carry.

The future, then, grows out of the past – and the past serves as a constant reminder of what must never be repeated. A little further along, to one side of the Court, stands the women’s prison. It now houses the National Women’s Commission, with one part serving as offices and the other as a museum – the cells are as they were then, filled with photographs of the prisoners, some of their possessions and their recorded voices.

At dinner the next day I meet many of the people whose voices I’ve heard on Constitution Hill. They’re ordinary people and I look at them and wonder how they dealt with the anger and the injustice and replaced it with something I can only label as compassion. I find myself talking to a South African Indian who tells me that he was tortured and that his fingers were crushed.

‘And do you know what I thought? The only thought that crossed my mind? I used to be very proud of my beautiful handwriting. As they were doing that to me I could only think: I’ll never be able to write so beautifully again. But now all that is over and my fingers are fine.’

India and South Africa have a strong bond: India’s greatest leader, Mohandas Gandhi, cut his early political teeth under the apartheid regime in South Africa and brought that experience to the nationalist movement in India. And yet, when it comes to memorializing the past, in India we’re no good at it. We remove all signs of it and pretend it never existed. Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to South Africa.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

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