Black Wednesday: Remembering the pain

About a week ago, I went to a film screening of a short doccie on Black Wednesday, hosted by the Steve Biko Foundation at the Bioscope in Maboneng.

I imagined that it would be enlightening and robust debate would be had. I didn’t imagine that I would cry throughout the entire thing.

I “know” our history, I’ve studied it extensively in school, varsity and in my private time to make sure that I never forget, I never become complacent, complicit and and and. Some say I am obsessed and I think we need to be if we truly want to “fight” the system – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Black Wednesday: On October 19 1977 three newspapers and a number of anit-apartheid journalists were banned. The movie we saw was about that, linking that day to the broader effort by the apartheid government to weaken the Black Consiousness Movement as a whole.

Seeing a grown man cry about how Steve Biko’s death was more than just a loss but something that left an indelible mark – at which point he cried, I cried. Personally I will never ever be able to forgive that. Killing Biko on September 12, a month prior, was more than an act of extreme hate but a convoluted plan to break a people – and it may have worked.

Anyway there was a cool opportunity for a Q&A session with the journalists who were banned that time, Joe Thloloe and Juby Mayet. Some highlights from that discussion:

Q: There’s a dirth intellectual leadership amongst emerging generations. They engage with Pan-African ideas at a very superficial level because it’s the “in” thing. The black rage they feel is fabricated. Thoughts on that?

Joe Thloloe: When you say fabricated anger, I disagree with that. It’s still the same anger. But we tried to sanitize it and in the process we find it erupting in ways we didn’t imagine… Since 1994 we have started to believe we are a rainbow nation, we are a miracle nation – when in fact the issues of the time still haven’t been solved. That’s the tragedy of our history.

Q: If that’s the case, can we be saved?

Juby Mayet: The black rage that exists today is directed at the current leadership, because there is such a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots. The haves are not necessarily white anymore…There is such a simple solution, don’t do it  for the t-shirt and the free food hamper – think. You’ve got the vote now, use it.

Q – asked by my friend, Shandukani Mulaudzi: What would you have liked to see happen in ’94?

JT: The first disaster was at Kempton Park, where a whole nation was hoodwinked into believing that a miracle is happening. The first thing that should have been negotiated was – how do we make up for all these years of suffering? That question wasn’t answered. And it still hasn’t been answered. We just went right to ululating and saying we are free – when in fact the basic issue was not resolved. Today a few of us have been co-opted into the old apartheid structures – we just have a few black faces there. I wanted us to answer the question of what do we do about 300 years of painful oppression.

Q: The term Black is now being used as a divider, rather than a term to unite. In the era of BCM, it was used to identify all people who were oppressed. The term Black is being abused by the current holders of power. How do you identify yourselves?

JM: When I had to fill in forms in those days and I still do this – where it asked for race I used to say human. If all of us do that they’ll soon chuck away all of the forms.

Q: Recently Minister Lindiwe Sisulu that people under 40 were not affected by apartheid, therefore should not benefit from redress measures like receiving RDP houses. Thoughts?

JT: That’s absolute nonsense. The child who is unable to read and write in Soweto today – is a product of the apartheid system. Is a product of Jan van Riebeeck landing in the Cape. So it’s 300 years that you are talking about and that will not be removed by the wave of a magic wand. When we talk about redress we must be talking about how we fix the systems, the hurt and damage that was done – mental, physical and spiritual.

Q: How do we address correcting the wrongs of the past if we don’t identify who is Black, White, Coloured etc, if we go by the human race definition?

JT: Saying we are part of “the human race” is a nice little intellectual trap we have set for ourselves. We have to be Black or Coloured or Indian to redress the past. Ultimately we are looking at all people who were oppressed, people who couldn’t vote, couldn’t get work, live where they wanted to etc.

JM: Millions are spent on nonsense things like Nkandla, expensive clothes, flying here and there. That money could be spent on other simple things like education. They did away with Teacher Training Colleges – where must our teachers learn to do what they do? There also needs to be more emphasis on reading from a very young age. Open more libraries, have mobile libraries in rural areas. My informal education largely came from reading when I was young – I just read everything that was in the house.

Q – asked by me: I’m a new journalist and obviously a black female. I find myself in a space where I am expected to write about Nkandla being so bad and that minister being so corrupt – when I know that that is not the real issue – white supremacy is. I suppose my question is, how today, as a journalist can I move beyond the anger I feel towards Jacob Zuma and focus on the real issue we have had and will probably have for I don’t know how long? It’s so very depressing to me to think that my children and their children and their children will have to live through this. It’s an all-encompassing frustration and depression that emanates from me not knowing what to do.

JM: You used the term “white supremacy” – there’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist in my world. In ’94 when we blacks went to vote for the first time were so blindsided by this rosey image of what was happening. We need to lay blame at Nelson Mandela’s feet. Yes, he was a terrific person and a great inspiration but we blindly voted for his party because of who he was – we didn’t see beyond him. We need to conscentise one another, to change mindsets.

JT: The media is a reflection of society in general. We have come to glorify the sensational. The media are businesses, they provide society with what society wants. As journalists we need to reflect who we are in our writing, not what the powers that be want. We are guerillas operating in enemy territory – the newspapers and radio stations are not ours but we must use them.

Q (asked audience member from Bolivia): I would like to see South Africa become a clour blind society. Because with this rainbow of this rainbow nation thing, there are just too many tribes – like in South America. It’s another form of apartheid to say black or white or coloured. People use “black” to play victim.

In response I said: It’s useful to label ourselves because there is a bigger system that supports those lables. It is not a coincidence that the people who liv e in dire poverty are people of colour. Until that is no longer the situation, the labeling of ourselves is necessary.

It was a lovely evening and much more was discussed in the hour long conversation. Keep learning, keep growing.

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Second generation trauma

I attended an amazing seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand on Thursday 18th of August 2011. The speaker at the seminar was Eva Hoffman, who is both a writer and an academic. The topic of the seminar was “Lost and Found in Transition: Contested memories and moving on from difficult pasts” , and more specifically second generation trauma. A phenomenon I have recently come to learn about and find very intriguing. cover_lost_in_translation

Second generation trauma has to do with the aftershocks that the children of survivors of gratuitous violence experience. The expression was first used to describe the children of Holocaust survivors. I first came across this term when reading Maus, a great graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He not only tells his father’s story of living through the genocide but also tells his personal story of trying to deal with that ‘passed on’ trauma. Eva Hoffman’s autobiography Lost in Translation does the same. She too is a “second hand” trauma victim.

Eva Hoffman described second generation trauma as encapsulating contested memories and transitions after great wrongs have been committed. This can prove problematic when trying to achieve reconciliation, especially because the afterlife of atrocity is long. She went on to say that democracy and freedom are difficult to negotiate after such a traumatic experience and that this initiation is necessary. Not from the victims’ side but from the perpetrators’.

In Jewish consciousness, the Polish were and are seen as being conspirators with the Nazi’s in contributing to Jewish suffering. In the same breath, she said that Polish descendants cannot be blamed or punished for their forefathers, but they need to acknowledge what happened. “After such wrongs have been done, they can’t be undone… Recognition, not forgiveness needs to be the starting point of reconciliation.”

As the seminar went on Hoffman delved deeper into the nature of second generation trauma. She said that it has to do with the transmission of memories but not exclusively; memory coupled with the after-effects of parental experience. This transmission often leads to the second generation being frozen in time, in so doing perpetuating the cycle of revenge within their generation. The children of survivors speak of despondency, depression and anger which all arise from trying to locate their parents’ context in history. None of the above can be resolved unless a second generation dialogue is initiated.

Second generation dialogue refers to the conversations that need to take place between the children of the victims and those of the perpetrators. We need to recognise that children of the perpetrators are also going through some form of trauma. They are traumatised by the silence of their parents, their inability to admit they were wrong. As a result they try to reject their parents but cannot do that because it is easier said than done. The fact that both sides are trying to deal with inherited trauma should be the condition that allows for a dialogue to take place. Trust and understanding are imperative for this dialogue to work. This dialogue is the only means of getting on a reconciliatory path and leading to an expansion of minds.

5_5_trc_cartoonI brought all of the above into a proximal context, a personal context. I consider myself as a victim of second generation trauma. I often wrestle with the issues that Hoffman raised. I am angry and despondent about apartheid and racial oppression, and so are a lot of my peers. It is particularly difficult for us to ‘move on’ because the lived reality of inequality is still very real to us. What I mean by this is that South Africa inherited structural violence and inequality. Today we refer to it as the legacy of apartheid.

How can we even begin to let go when the effects of that totalitarian system are still rife in our society? The racial disparities in our society are very obvious and this is something that needs to be addressed.

However, when one starts to speak about such issues we are met with contestations of being too racialised. I find that a lot of liberal whites and blacks want us to repress the past. This would be folly – the past needs to be acknowledged, remembered and addressed. “Wrong doers cannot get forgiveness until they admit to crimes and are willing to repent for them”, said Hoffman.

This brought up questions from the audience about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). One gentleman said it was highly idyllic and aimed to quickly cover up the past. He went on to say it failed because forgiveness is a Christian doctrine and forced people to adhere along those lines. To counter this, a young lady said we cannot look at the TRC as a defining moment but a mere example of things that can be done to help the nation move on. Hoffman answered this by saying: “The side most responsible for atrocities needs to make the first step”. This is where the TRC failed. To add on to this point, another young lady said it is astonishing to her that “those who weren’t allowed to vote before 1994 are now responsible for reconciling a nation that was destroyed by those who were allowed to vote”. Surely it should be the inverse.

I must say this seminar did help me in negotiating my position as a young black person. Along with this I had a defining “aha moment”. I never thought about the equally complex psychological disposition of my white peers. Both ‘sides’ cannot reject or abandon their parental history but we need to remember it is not our own. The second generation dialogue resonated with me; it is the first step we can all take on this journey of reconciliation. It will not happen overnight; it will be a process. We need to create our own history that will reflect our willingness to try and amend the past.

**NOTE: Post first appeared on exPress imPress on August 28 2011.