Living histories, herstories and our stories

Knowing more about our past can help heal SA’s collective consciousness

24 November 2020 - 11:08
By Shanthini Naidoo
 Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was one of many women who suffered brutal detention during the apartheid era.
Image: Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was one of many women who suffered brutal detention during the apartheid era.

Wise people warn we should never open social media first thing in the morning if you want to preserve your mental health and energy for the day.

However, if you are deliberate about it, you can curate your reading to find special content which will nourish your mind.

For instance, reading historian and writer Ntombizikhona Valela’s tweets are like eating a bonbon – they push all the right chemical buttons. She usually shares a rare or beautiful image, with a titbit of SA history in 280 characters. On the day of writing, it was a photograph of songstress Miriam Makeba from 1959, on an Italian beach in a white polka-dot dress, to mark the anniversary of her death in 2008.  

She says: “People who say ‘we need to make history compulsory in school’, or ‘they don't teach this at school’, why do you confine the study of history to the classroom?”

She’s right, of course.

If I think back to my own classroom history lessons, with the dog-eared History 2000 textbook, brown, A5, thick as your smallest finger, with single paragraphs failing to cover vast tracts of time.

We can know if we want to know

We live in an information age, so it is only our own complacency and caring that stops us.

While writing Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid, I was at times ashamed I didn’t readily know the historical facts around the story of four women -Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Rita Ndzanga, Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla - who were activists and friends of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and were kept in solitary confinement while a part of a momentous 1969 treason trial.

Their refusal to testify in the "Trial of 22", their brutal torture and detention, and how they picked up their lives afterwards, is an intrinsic part of our history.

Trying to piece the events together at the time, I was faced with a lack of historical documents and few testimonials from witnesses (if they were still alive). It showed a knowledge gap about their brave work and contribution. 

However, history and truth are sought rather than found. I realised this when a senior magistrate bravely reached out to say she hadn't known about slain freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu (apart from a road name change) before reading the book. It was candid honestly, and was corrected by seeking knowledge.

Vikela Rankin, the son of one of the book’s subjects, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, shared a screengrab of a social media post. A young person shared that they didn’t realise OR Tambo was a “real person” until a statue was unveiled earlier this year.

It was with this in mind that a "living history" conversation with the women, which will take place next week Sunday, became absolutely necessary. (Details for free registration below).

We risk our country’s psychological recovery when we miss important narratives. We have seen the effects of blind ignorance in our schools, workplaces and government structures.

It isn’t about intellectual one-upping. We risk our country’s psychological recovery when we miss important narratives. We have seen the effects of blind ignorance in our schools, workplaces and government structures.

Stellenbosch-based Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s extensive work, including the recent Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Perspectives on the Unfinished Journeys of the Past, brought scholars together to explore the relationship between trauma and memory, and the complex, interconnected issues of trauma and narrative – storytelling.

Most importantly, for the purposes of SA moving on from a troubled past, today and future, it examines transgenerational trauma. The research looks into using memory as the basis for dialogue and reconciliation in divided societies like ours, and the changing role of memory in the aftermath of mass trauma. This includes mourning and the potential of forgiveness to heal the enduring effects of mass trauma.

What happens when we don’t know enough about our past

Gobodo-Madikizela says: "[South Africans] now face the double jeopardy of the transgenerational repercussions of apartheid’s corruption, and the failures of some politicians in our contemporary government in their moral duty to act in ways that would reduce the suffering of the descendants of those who were oppressed under apartheid."

She says there should be a parallel equalising of economic disparity along with psychological healing.

However, she says revenge, bitterness and even vengeful acts like corruption impede us from growth.

"In much of the world’s great literature, and much of its past and current history as well, the idea of vengeance has carried with it a certain noble air, as if motivated by a force of good that somehow enables it to transcend the very violence that gave birth to it.

“Violent acts designed to make the other person suffer pain are sometimes thinly cloaked under notions of ‘justice-seeking’, ‘defending’ human rights or righteous indignation. They [vengeful acts] have an attraction, a logic that has come to hold a central position in the thinking and values held by individuals and groups who have been on the receiving end of the humiliation produced by oppression.”

She says memory can be used as a basis for dialogue and transformation.

“I think we are engaging with these issues at a pivotal moment in SA where questions about the past – and how to interrupt the cycles of its repetition and bring about social change – have come to dominate public debate.”

In healing, we cannot rewrite the past, or change it in any way. But we absolutely cannot forget. We have to remember what happened, and who the people were who forged the foundations on which we walk through life.

They can guide us when we keep them in our mind’s eye as we navigate the tough, tough democracy that has shown so many fault lines in recent years. How to do this is to know the history of our forefathers, and particularly the period 1942 to 1992. Five decades that did not stand still in SA. They moved in lives, love and relationships.

Living histories mean moving forward

Valela says our history is a difficult sell because it “painful and ugly”, without pantheons and art to frame it, like European history.

“To uncover our history is painful and angering, but the effects of the painful past on our present are already showing. We are in the eye of the storm.

“Not doing this work means we continue with the culture of forgetting in SA. This allows for certain individuals to rebrand themselves to re-emerge as things they were not, at the least - where you had a distasteful former statesman appear as a concerned citizen through their foundation.

“It’s dangerous - and we are seeing that happen before our eyes.”

To put a spotlight on the emotional impact of our past is to humanise it further than the single narratives of iconic figures like Nelson Mandela. These stories must go beyond "the Mandela effect" and the parallel dark mysteries of Madikizela-Mandela.

Valela says: “If we don’t do the deep dive into our collective consciousness about what we have survived and the effects, it will remain with us.

“Part of it is a struggle against forgetting because of resources and funding. Historians and artists should have limitless scope so we can deal with all of our past, which is triggering. It helps us to unpack what the new SA means and reflects on what we have survived in the last 300 years, and the last 30 years of democracy.”

Detailed stories are missing from the country’s collective consciousness, let alone the history books. Stories begin to correct that - especially stories about people whose lives intersected with the great forces of colonialism, apartheid and the resistance movement, and how they responded.

Then we can move forward as a country in mind - and not just in bodies disjointed from each other.

  • Naidoo is author of Women in the Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid. A knowledge-seeking event, “Know your country: Women in the Solitary: the Reunion”, will be held online on November 28 2020. Meet the four women activists at the centre of the trial of 1969. Register here.