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South Africa Special - to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ending of apartheid

South Africa

Keeping His Promise: Exploring Mandela’s emotional legacy

Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth

History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa

Nadine Gordimer’s 1981 novel July’s People, a portrait of a future South Africa riven by civil war, has an epigraph by Gramsci: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.’

Thankfully Gordimer’s apocalyptic vision was avoided and it is 10 years this month since South Africa’s first democratic elections made Nelson Mandela President and brought the ANC to power. That this is a cause for celebration is beyond debate. However, hard questions remain about apartheid’s poisonous legacy and the ‘morbid symptoms’ that tarnish the Rainbow Nation. Three recently published books attempt, each in their own different way, to ask such questions.

Enver Carim’s novel, Keeping His Promise opens with a shattering act of brutality as Rennie D’Arcy, a respected and talented jazz musician, is gunned down by a racist deathsquad. Rennie’s teenage son Jerry vows that he will find and kill the men responsible. The novel tracks Jerry on his quest for vengeance, a process complicated by his rampaging hormones and burgeoning sexuality. Carim has given us a well-drawn portrait of a South African youth searching for a future that makes sense and Jerry’s journey encompasses both the abject poverty of the townships and the gated and guarded enclaves of the newly rich. Despite some overblown writing and a hectoring style, this novel makes a compelling case that the endemic violence in South African society is a lingering national psychosis to be worked through rather than a failure of democracy. As one character says, expecting the effects of three centuries of racism to be undone in a decade could be seen as just a little unreasonable.

Terry Bell’s Unfinished Business is a closely argued critique of the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bell’s contention is that the TRC, in its understandable desire to heal the wounds of a traumatized nation, gave priority to the ‘reconciliation’ element of its brief to the detriment of truth. This allowed many of apartheid’s torturers and killers to walk free and, indeed, remain in positions of power. Bell’s book gives us the examination of the apartheid system that he says the Commission failed to provide, presenting a complex jigsaw of state terror, informer networks, the Broederbond secret society and death squads. It highlights the resistance and bravery of countless unsung individuals and is a celebration of the initially fragile webs of solidarity and resistance that were eventually to overcome apartheid. The centrepiece of the book is the tale of how Dumisa Ntsebeza, a prominent human rights lawyer and Commission member, was falsely incriminated in a murder case in a calculated effort to discredit and derail the TRC process.

Bell, while fully acknowledging the value of the Commission’s work, presents a persuasive argument that dirty tricks and political expediency prevented the full and frank exposure of South Africa’s hidden history that is so necessary if the country is to fulfil its promise as a ‘miracle nation’.

In History After Apartheid, Annie Coombes looks more kindly on the TRC’s ‘impossible mandate’, taking as her starting point the verbal submissions given to the Commission. In a fascinating overview of post-apartheid visual arts, Coombes argues that fresh definitions of ‘ community’ and ‘history’ grew out of such testimonies, allowing a new generation of artists to construct a viable public art from the rubble of apartheid. Coombes examines the fate of apartheid-era works such as the Voortrekker Monument and the repeated vandalism by right-wing extremists of the statue of the murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Public art, it seems, can be an incendiary focus for political confrontation and parallels can be drawn with statues of Lenin and Marx in post-Soviet Russia, not to mention the toppled effigies of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The book ends with an intriguing analysis of the changing cultural significance of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, London. Beginning life as an expression of colonial power, it was transformed first into an idealized celebration of Afrikaner culture and then, through the work of contemporary artists such as Sue Williamson and Berni Searle, into an embodiment of the new South Africa.

As South Africans embark on the second decade of their infant democracy they face daunting problems, as these books have shown. Neither by appropriating nor ignoring the bloody nature of their country’s past will they prevail. As Annie Coombes remarks, quoting the Czech author Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

Amandla! traces, through archive footage and interviews, the vital role of music in 40 years of struggle against apartheid. The songs were more important than speeches in spreading the word, says music producer Sifiso Ntuli. One of the very first freedom songs, ‘Beware Verwoerd’ – written by Vuyisile Mini, who was later executed by the regime – responded to Prime Minister Verwoerd’s announcement of apartheid with gentle music but an implacable message. As the struggle developed the songs changed. ‘Toyi-toyi’ – high-energy song and dance – prefigured victory.

Amandla! relies too much on present-day commentary rather than original footage. But featuring Makeba, Masakela, Ibrahim and Khumalo, and with nearly 30 songs on the soundtrack, it’s not just enlightening. This is stirring stuff.

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