How we choose to remember the past says much about our present day emotional affinities and ideological commitments. When we choose to ignore awkward facts about a person’s past after they pass away, we often do so because it serves our own interests. Our partial amnesia allows us to feel virtuous about our own life choices and our emotional or other enigmatic associations with the deceased. Could that be why, in the obituaries I read about Bridget Oppenheimer over the past few days, I looked in vain for any mention of awkward facts about her life or that of her Rand Lord husband, Harry Oppenheimer?
Contestation about the past, about memory and about historical narratives are often just as much about present day struggles to impose a particular view of the world on society (a view that reflects the interests of a dominant elite), as it is about what ought to be remembered from our past. Who has the power to dictate what must be remembered and what must be swept under the carpet? Who gets to decide what we are allowed to remember and what must be forgotten? Answers to these questions say much about the relative social, economic and political power of various institutions and groups in a society.
I was reminded of this the other day when I was looking for a cell phone charger and chanced upon my old photo albums at the back of a cupboard in the spare room. These albums were carefully put together in an era when you still had to have your films developed at the chemist. As I paged through these albums I was struck by a picture of myself — lean, blond, tanned a golden brown colour, smiling shyly into the camera — reclining in a bathing costume (“kostjiem” we called it in our peculiar Afrikaans bastardisation of the English word) on a slightly tattered towel on the white sand of a beach in Mosselbay.
An intense nostalgia overpowered me; and a kind of sadness, too, for that awkward, scared, and desperately vulnerable and insecure boy who was yet to come to terms with his own sexuality, or with his tendency to hold a cold distance from those whom he thought would hurt him or reject him.
The particular picture must have been taken during the December holiday at the end of my standard nine year (grade eleven in the language of today); it must have been the unhappy holiday my younger sister and I stayed with my parents on a cousin’s farm outside Mosselbay, my parents fighting almost every day about money and about my father’s drinking.
It must have been taken in the year that I was cajoled into remaining on my cousin’s farm for an extra two weeks after my parents went back home to Pietersburg (now Polokwane). I guess this was part of a plan hatched by my parents to “toughen me up”.
Every morning — feeling homesick and out of place – I had to drive my cousin’s bakkie (these people, I thought at the time, were really rich, owning both a Mercedes Benz and a bakkie) with large milk cans on the back to the drop off point at the small railway stop at Coopersiding. (The Police was never going to stop a seventeen year old white boy driving without a licence.)
This task at least saved me from having to go horse riding with my cousin, a possibility I dreaded as I was intensely scared of horses, of being bitten by them and falling off of them and being revealed to be a moffie by them by not being able to ride properly, like a “real” man — as my father must surely have told me.
This is the story I would like to tell myself — that I may well continue to tell myself from time to time — about that holiday back in 1980. It is the story — with its elisions and silences — that I have the luxury of continuing to tell myself as part of the process of constructing a passable identity for myself.
In South Africa there is little need for me, as a middle class white man, to think through these memories and to force myself to delve deeper. It’s a kind of luxury that my social and economic power bestows on me. I was on the beneficial side of apartheid, so I have the luxury to remember only partially.
This story I have told you, is one that could neatly fit into the dominant narratives about white people’s lives — especially the lives of “innocent” children — during apartheid. These are the stories you often find in the media and in many memoires and novels invoking the apartheid past from the perspective of a white child. In these narratives, an innocent white child describes an intensely personal interior life, somehow untainted by the horrors of the apartheid system, even as that apartheid system is experienced as being vaguely unjust by the child.
But as the nostalgia overwhelmed me while I poured over the fading picture of myself on that white beach at the age of seventeen, looking for clues of the man I became (or, perhaps, continues to become, one day at a time), I forced myself to think about that which often remains unremembered and unsaid about my own life (as it so often remains unsaid and unremembered for white people in South Africa). I experienced a sharp jolt, something like an ache — almost pleasurable in its painfulness, not unlike acute forms of nostalgia — as other memories about that holiday in Mosselbay flooded in.
That beach on which the picture was taken, I now recall, was reserved for white people only. Not that this is a memory I would be able to conjure up at all. At the time I had the luxury as a white boy to experience apartheid as normal and, if the truth be told, I cannot recall finding that whites only beach strange in any way. The evil lodged at the centre of many of our privileged lives then, to rephrase Hannah Arendt, was exactly the banal normality to us of what we experienced every day, despite being engulfed by a sea of injustice, despite living in a country in which our “normality” could not — morally at least — ever be considered to be normal.
I am also forced to remember my stubborn silence over the two weeks I spent on that farm as I watched my cousin every evening as he handed each of the farm workers their bottle of wine at the back door of the main farm house. “A kind of bribe,” he joked with me on the first night, winking and punching me playfully on the arm, this cousin of mine with his young wife and his two blond daughters. It would be many years before I could name this practice as the dopstelsel and could describe its feudal origins and harmful effects.
Although these political insights about the exploitation of black workers now come easily to me — as does the, perhaps too glib or self-righteous, condemnation of these racist practices – I wonder if I dare to call up the emotions I felt then (emotions — let me dare to go there — of fear and disgust and pity, animated by my own deeply entrenched racism) as I watched the farm workers performing their sad ritual of subjugation towards their volatile overlord, my genial cousin?
Which also raises the question of what other uncomfortable or shameful memories about those two weeks on the farm I am choosing not to dredge up or which I am choosing deliberately to withhold from the readers of this column (from myself?) in an effort to paint myself in a more sympathetic light?
I recall all this to make the point that in South Africa, especially for a white person vaguely aware of our apartheid history, the past is a complex, often painful, and even dangerous beast. That is one of the reasons, I suspect, why so many white South Africans urge us all to put the past behind us. It’s a bit like insisting on locking a once beloved but now crazy aunt away in the cellar of your house and pretending to the outside world that she is dead.
This imposed amnesia is of course not an effective way to deal with the past. The crazy aunt can be locked up in the attic, but from time to time she will let out a piercing scream, reminding both you and your visitors of the complex feelings you harbour towards her.
Given these impulses, it is not surprising that when writing about a public figure from the socially, culturally and economically dominant sector of society after his or her death there is a strong impulse among those empowered to make decisions about such things to smooth out the creases of the person’s life and to skim over the more complex and problematic aspects of their apartheid era lives.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me there is far less reticence to dig up insalubrious detail of a person’s life after they pass away if that person happens not to be a member of the upper echelons of the old establishment. For some it is far easier to say brutally honest things about the late Manto Tshabalala Msimang than about the late Harry or Bridget Oppenheimer.
Call it a form of subliminal racism; call it self-preservation; call it a combination of factors that can all be traced back to the question of who has the power to decide how we remember and what we remember about the past; call it the way in which power perpetuates and preserves itself.
I suspect there is often not a conscious decision by journalists and commentators to treat the two kinds of people differently after they pass away. Rather these things play out in accordance with a script that remains invisible — like tracks hidden just beneath the surface of the water in a Disneyland pleasure ride. It is the way power works to construct a certain reality, a knowledge about the world, based on the half-truths and silences of those who control the means of producing dominant forms of knowledge. And in our society social, cultural and economic power (but, of course, not political power) largely still reside with people who look or sound like Bridget Oppenheimer or with people who feel a strong emotional association with everything that people like Bridget Oppenheimer stood for.
Is this perhaps why most of Bridget Oppenheimer’s obituaries, while mentioning her kindness and her good deeds, failed to mention that her life and her “good deeds” were made possible by the wealth amassed by her family, who ruthlessly exploited migrant labourers on their mines and mistreated the workers who dug up the gold from these mines. Is that why these obituaries were mostly silent about the fact that for a long time she and her husband, Harry Oppenheimer, did not think that apartheid was morally wrong, and believed that separation of the races was necessary to maintain so called “white civilisation”?
There is, of course, an injustice in how power operates to erase some collective memories and amplify others. There is also a lesson there about how power is retained by those at the top of the social and economic heap.
But this smoothing out of creases in the lives of members of the dominant elite, is also, to my mind, profoundly life-denying. It seems to me there is something intensely meaningful and life affirming in moving to an understanding of yourself that goes beyond one-dimensional and clichéd narratives in which you always remain the unblemished hero of your own life.
Humans are complex and flawed creatures and this is, in its own way, beautiful. But for many South Africans the fear of confronting at least some dimensions of the less than heroic aspects of their lives, rob them of the ability to be fully human.
That, too, it seems to me, is a kind of minor tragedy.