Shattered pasts

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(South African war relics, Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein, Karoo)

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examined the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after communities had come to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are that they are being put upon us. People who are not us are describing our behaviour, defining our ordinary, every day, sometimes shitty, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good.

“How dare they?” come the retaliations. “How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?”

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and white South Africans are feeling exposed, defenceless, uncomfortable.

What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is very similar to what happened in post-war Germany. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, as the old Germans begin to die, a space opened up for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

Cue – in South Africa – the Frantz Fanon, RhodesMustFall, EFF generation.

And if we keep drawing the parallel, what the Shattered Past research found was that “the capacity for perpetrators to change arose only after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, for society to heal, it had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the death of their solider sons, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. Yes, the Nuremberg trials (Truth and Reconcilliation Commission) had held those with actual blood on their hands to account, but the rest of the Germans had been left alone to deal with their losses.

In 1960s Germany, the new youth consciousness heralded a phase where the personal losses and griefs of the past were permitted to be aired and dissected.

And I find myself wondering: is that what South Africa needs too? Do those white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s who don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, need to be given an opportunity to express their unresolved pain?

Admittedly, it’s often hard to feel anything but contempt for some white South Africans. On Valentine’s weekend I was at the Vaal River and felt like washing my hands of any further attempt at inter-racial healing as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats who drive drunk and reckless on the river without a care for anyone but themselves. How does one even begin to have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys? Who are these people?

But later, as the sun set over the river, and I connected once again with the deep peace of the land, I also found myself wondering what lurks beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated again on this new soil as they had tried to build a new home. Out of this defeat they rose again, this time determined to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost control of that too.

What lies inside people who have lost and lost and lost?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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