A journey into nostalgia

17 July 2011 - 03:08 By Mark Gevisser
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"There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe ..."

If you have ever watched Hugh Masekela perform his anthem Stimela, you could not but have been profoundly affected by the force of its emotion as he sings and blows and shunts his tale of migrant labourers coming to Johannesburg on the coal train (steam train) to dig "deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth".

Why does the song provoke such an intense response? At one level, it is because of the empathy it establishes with the people on whose backs our country's wealth is built. And yet how to explain the passion, the sheer longing, evident at any performance of the song: the gathering cheer that builds through the crowd as they hear Masekela's whoo-whoo and realise the train is about to arrive?

The thrill, of course, is connected to Masekela's virtuosity and vitality. But the longing comes from somewhere else. A train, particularly a steam train, conjures up the past; in the way it crosses space and time, it represents the working of memory. And this act of remembering is at the heart of the experience of performing - and listening to - Stimela.

We love great songs because they trigger memories of the previous times we heard them. In the case of Stimela, it might take us back to a simpler time, when there was evil and it could be fought with struggle and song.

Masekela wrote the song when he was in exile, and it expresses his own longing for home. He also succeeds in evoking not just the pain, but also the longing of the subjects of his song, the labourers who "always curse, curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg".

Although it might seem paradoxical, there is an element of nostalgia in the rhythmic "curse, curse" of the migrant labourers for the train. This is a nostalgia we experience as listeners too, for a journey we all know in one way or another: one that takes one from the countryside to the city, from the past to the present, from youth to old age.

Masekela certainly does not want to return us to the horrors of apartheid. But, inStimela, he evokes the past in a way which enables us to remember it not simply with horror (which might provoke trauma or amnesia), but with admiration for the sheer resilience of the men who took the train, and with the strong sensory recall of one who heard it and saw it himself during his youth.

Masekela will talk about this on the evening of July 28, when he shares the Wits Great Hall stage with Nadine Gordimer, William Kentridge, Zoë Wicomb and Chris van Wyk in a unique encounter: a public conversation "On Memory and Creativity" that I have convened, as part of the Apartheid Archive's conference, "Nationhoods, Nostalgia, Narratives". With words, image and song, these five great South African writers and artists will explore the way in which memory fuels their creativity.

"Nostalgia" was a term coined by a Swiss doctor in the late 19th century, from the Greek words nostos (home) and algia (pain), to describe the condition of people separated from their homes. A longing for a lost home often means a longing for lost youth, and "nostalgia" is a highly controversial word to use in the South African context, because of the way it evokes a yearning for an idealised past and therefore, possibly, a refusal to accept the realities of the present.

But what, asks Jacob Dlamini in his book Native Nostalgia, "does it mean for a black South African to remember life under apartheid with fondness? What does it mean to say that it was not all doom and gloom under apartheid and there is a lot we can look back on with pride? To be nostalgic for a life lived under apartheid is not to yearn for the depravity visited upon SA by apartheid. It is to yearn, instead, for order in an uncertain world ..."

Nostalgia, Dlamini insists, "is essentially about the present. It is about present anxieties refracted through the prism of the past." For the writer personally, it is also an act of agency and thus self-liberation: a way of reclaiming his personal story - his own childhood, his own home, his own township - from the grand and somewhat dehumanising official narrative of the freedom struggle, which requires that life under apartheid be presented as relentless misery.

The organisers of the Apartheid Archive conference are the University of the Witwatersrand psychologists Norman Duncan and Garth Stevens. They write that the kind of "reflective nostalgia" Dlamini describes can work "to destabilise negative, taken-for-granted assumptions about life during apartheid as a black person" and can thus work to oppose "the emasculation, denigration, dehumanisation and inevitable characterisation of blacks as damaged".

There is, of course, another way that nostalgia works in post-apartheid SA: the yearning for an idealised past. Duncan and Stevens term this "pathological grief". It is typically deployed ideologically, by fascists, by neo-Stalinists, by the Ostalgics of East Germany, by African nativists who mythologise a pre-colonial Eden and, of course, by white South African racists who yearn for a time when they were in control and things worked.

Perhaps things did work better in the old days for such nostalgics. But such nostalgia is not about reason or even reality; it is lodged rather in an emotional and political sense of disempowerment. To borrow from Freud, such "mourning" runs the risk of becoming "melancholia" - pathological depression which would have the political manifestation of instability or alienation - if it is not resolved through the application of reason: life goes on; things are not that bad.

According to Duncan and Stevens, there is a third way that nostalgia is activated in post- apartheid SA: "racial melancholia". This is a deepening understanding by white South Africans that their own happy childhoods were dependent on the misery of others. The psychoanalyst Melanie Suchet describes the way this leads to "an experience of loss, a diminishment in the sense of self as we see through whiteness. It is the recognition that under the mantle of whiteness, there is the perpetration of violence, terror and the infliction of psychological damage."

Suchet describes the "horror" with which some white South Africans "come to own the destructiveness that is a part of whiteness" as the penny drops about how they have benefited "despite ourselves, despite our beliefs, values, and ideals". This is something far more complex - and reflective - than stereotypical "white guilt", and it need not lead sufferers into a melancholy funk. It is, after all, the creative force that drives so many of SA's greatest writers, not least Gordimer herself.

If Dlamini is right, and nostalgia tells us about "present anxieties", then one of the dominant anxieties in this age of globalisation and technological revolution, writes the historian Tony Judt, is the "growing fear that we shall forget the past, that somehow it will be misplaced among the bric-à-brac of the present. We commemorate a world we have lost, sometimes even before we have lost it."

Hence the heritage industry. In SA, this manifests in the state's huge investment in Mapungubwe and Freedom Park (both of which, I would argue, are driven in part by nostalgia) and in the biography and memoir boom: Ronnie Kasrils won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize for his memoir this year; Albie Sachs last year.

In the Wits Great Hall, Kentridge will screen his new film, Other Faces, for the first time in SA. It is an exquisite and deeply unsettling elegy for a lost Johannesburg. In it, Kentridge returns to his long-time alter ego, Soho Epstein, who finds refuge in the nostalgia of a suburban white childhood, against the "present anxieties" of both a violent and a changing city, and of the ageing process, of impending mortality.

One of the leitmotifs in Kentridge's film is a miner (or perhaps an undertaker) dancing with a spade. Both this figure and Masekela's lyrics remind me of something Walter Benjamin once wrote: that memory "is not an instrument for surveying the past, but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging."

Perhaps we love Masekela's Stimela because he turns those men's labour into a powerful metaphor to help us understand the process we must all go through, in the manifold processes we undertake - personal, communal and national - to pass beyond grief.

"On Creativity and Memory", Wits Great Hall, July 28, 6pm. For more info or to RSVP, contact nomonde.gogo@wits.ac.za, or go to www.apartheidarchive.org

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