Celebrated annually on 18 July, Nelson Mandela International Day symbolizes the global recognition of a beloved South African icon who has become representative of the possibility of creating change through peace and reconciliation. It was launched by the United Nations on his birthday (18 July) in 2009, inspired by a call he made a year earlier for the next generation to pick up the torch of fighting injustice and forging peace and reconciliation when he said, “it is in your hands now”.
As we remember Mandela’s profound local and international legacy, it is also fitting that we ask about the unfinished business of our own transition to democracy, as it is this unfinished business that is “in our hands now”. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How do we honour Mandela’s legacy through doing our part to repair what remains broken and troubled in our nation?
The deep grooves of structural inequality in South Africa are one of the pressing forms of unfinished business inherited from the past and intensified in the present. However, there is another important area of unfinished work, namely the pressing need and desire for intergenerational memory work between those who lived through Apartheid and those born into democracy.
This was highlighted recently by young South Africans at two of the launches of a newly published book of stories about memories of the apartheid past and their meaning in the present, titled These are the things that sit with us, and edited by Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Friederike Bubenzer and Marietjie Oelofsen.
Coming from people who had lived through the oppression and violence of Apartheid in Bonteheuwel, Langa and Worcester, the stories were collected as part of an AW Mellon-funded research project at the Historical Trauma and Transformation Research Initiative at Stellenbosch University. I attended the launch of the book in Langa and in Bonteheuwel, where the storytellers from these respective communities were given space to share a part of their story with the audience and then members of the audience could ask questions or provide comments on these stories.
As they shared their stories, the hurt they were still carrying was palpable. In today’s context they find themselves “sitting with” memories of this painful past alongside and entangled with their present struggles. At both events, the powerful significance of sharing these stories with the younger generations was evident. In Langa, a young woman stood up at the end of the story-telling session and commented on how lucky we were to have an opportunity to hear these stories. She said that it is very difficult to get the older generations to open up about what they have been through. At the same time, she felt that there is so much more in the stories of her own parents and grandparents that she wants to be shared.
In Bonteheuwel, a young woman also stood up and with passion and emotion commented on how important it is for the youth to engage with these stories. She challenged South Africans who lived through Apartheid to “be brave enough to be vulnerable” in sharing with the youth the memories of this time that continue to stir in their hearts. The emotion in her call and her choice of words indicates both the difficulty and importance of this kind of “vulnerable” intergenerational sharing.
Witnessing the response of these young South Africans in Bonteheuwel and Langa about the stories they were hearing, alerts us to the pressing need for intergenerational memory work in our country. Intergenerational memory work is important, not just in the South African context, but in other post-conflict contexts. For example, in the generation born to survivors of the Holocaust in Germany or the genocide in Rwanda, a similar sense of knowing but not knowing the painful memories of their parents has been documented.
These memories may not be verbally shared, but they are nevertheless communicated via emotional and embodied connections to times, places and meaningful objects (such as photographs or items of clothing) that represent this difficult past. Through feeling their parent’s emotional connection to this past, the second generation often inherits a sense of responsibility to work through the unfinished business of their parent’s history.
Embarking on intergenerational memory work remains an important part of the unfinished business of Mandela’s legacy that has been passed into our hands. This is not only the case for young South Africans whose parents were classified as “black” and “coloured” and carry the traumatic legacy of these histories. For the generation, like myself, born to those classified as “white” under Apartheid, intergenerational dialogue could help us to reflect on the responsibility we carry for the brutal legacy of Apartheid committed in our name.
Intergenerational memory work conducted across different sections of South African society could assist young South Africans to become more consciously aware of what the memories of previous generations mean for them and what their current responsibilities are in collectively creating a better future.
Dr Kim Wale is a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the Historical Trauma and Transformation Initiative at SU. She authored the book South Africa’s Struggle to Remember: Contested Memories of Squatter Resistance in the Western Cape.
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