In memory of who we are

When I think about identity, I like to borrow from writers who have referred to identity as a story. We often talk about identity as something that we can define and determine for ourselves as individuals. While that may be true in part, it is perhaps valuable for us to think of identity as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, as well as the stories other people tell about us. Professor Emmanuel Katongole, in the introduction to his book The Sacrifice of Africa – A Political Theology for Africa, so beautifully captures this understanding of identity as a story when he writes the following:

“…we are how we imagine ourselves and how others imagine us. But this imagining does not take place as an abstraction in the world of fantasy or as the unbounded free play of a mental faculty called the imagination. The idea that we can be anything we wish to be is one of the most insidious lies we can ever entertain. Who we are, and who we are capable of becoming depends very much on the stories we tell, the stories we listen to and the stories we live. Stories not only shape our values, aims and goals, they define the range of what is desirable and what is possible. They are embedded in us and form the very heart of our cultural, economic, religious and political worlds. This applies not only to individuals, but to institutions and even nations. That is what a notion like ‘Africa’ names, not so much a place, but a story – or set of stories about how people of the continent called Africa are located in the narrative that constitutes the modern world.”

At the risk of taking liberties, I’ve rewritten that last sentence for South Africa. “That is what a notion like ‘South Africa’ names, not so much a place, but a story – or set of stories about how people of the country called South Africa are located in the narrative that constitutes the modern world.”

It is difficult to write truthfully about identity among South African youths without contextualising the identity crisis that South Africa itself is. Having grown up in what is often referred to as ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa, there are two parts of the South African narrative that my generation has inherited from the generation before us: ‘rainbow-ism’ and ‘born free-ism’. It is intentional that I have added the ‘-ism’ suffix to both these words. I believe that both of these concepts have emerged not only as a comforting rebranding of the national identity after 1994, but they have also come to serve as powerful ideological tools that are sometimes weaponised against young people or used to lull them into passivity.

My observations as a speaker, facilitator and strategic advisor in several restorative justice dialogue spaces suggest that the activation of ‘rainbow nation’ rhetoric often occurs at moments when South Africans want to sugar-coat or disregard race-related issues. To name it more explicitly, although well-intended, ‘rainbow-ism’ tends to focus on the parts of multi-culturalism and diversity that are comfortable for a white minority. Even when a black, coloured, or Indian person invokes the ‘rainbow nation’ in discussions, it often functions against them. I have noted how often the ‘rainbow nation’ is invoked when real attempts are being made to deal with structural inequities – be it in ex-Model C school staff rooms, private school playgrounds or corporate boardrooms. I, like many other young people of colour in this country, have come to note the ‘rainbow nation’ shorthand as a tool to silence and invalidate our lived experiences of oppression, perhaps because they may not be occurring under the veil of formally legislated apartheid.

Similarly, the notion of a ‘born free’ was intended to mark a calendar year as being synonymous with freedom for a portion of the population. It was intended to suggest that those born in 1994 were gifted with this new lease on life, never having to experience the violence, terror and injustice of apartheid because of the transfer of political power from white minority rule to black majority’s hands. I am concerned, however, that to label a generation as ‘born frees’ is to politicise the act of birth in a way that couches the beginning of that narrative in a convenient untruth. To politicise birth is to politicise the existence of unsuspecting children – except the existence of some children is more political than others. And by using the blanket term ‘born frees’, we falsely equate the political nature of their differentiated experiences. When white South African children were born in 1994 and thereafter, from what were they born free? From what were coloured, black and Indian children born free? I’m a firm believer that the systems of colonialism and apartheid have been damaging to all South Africans regardless of race, mainly because they were built on lies. However, just because something was built on falsehood does not mean you cannot live in it.

We have all been hurt, but definitely not in the same way. I am not convinced that white children in South Africa have been liberated from their inherited superiority complex, or that they have been freed from the entitlement to be seen, heard and served by mostly black and coloured women simply by being born in or after April 1994. I also do not believe that children of colour in this country have been born free of the shackles of inferiority, or the limitations placed on their ability to dream due to a lack of representation and real constraints on their inherited material conditions. To call this generation ‘born frees’ is to disguise the intentionality, the structuredness and the thoughtfulness of colonialism – and its extension in and beyond apartheid – such that freedom becomes a matter of birth and not a matter of well-constructed stories.

Whilst the notions of ‘born free-ism’ and ‘rainbow-ism’ have indeed served a purpose, their purpose has not been one of emancipation for this generation. I believe that the imposition of these labels has denied young people the opportunity to name themselves.

To name themselves, South African youth must know who they are and where they come from. Such knowledge is a matter of stories. Histories and Herstories. It is at this point that a conversation about memory becomes useful. Dr Lebohang Pheko, an activist and academic, talks about memory in instructive ways. She speaks of remembering as in “to recall things from memory” and on the other hand, she speaks of what it means to ‘re-member’ as in “to put something back together”. In an October 2014 article, Dr Pheko put it even more powerfully by saying: “Memory is an act of defiance because erasure is an instinct of conquest.” There is something very powerful about teaching in general, but specifically the teaching of history. The success of colonialism apartheid is that it embedded in the practice of teaching, the habit of erasing African identities and contributions to what we consider important bodies of knowledge today. In this way, something like education cannot be neutral as it shapes, distorts and vandalises the minds of the young.

Many pieces of ourselves are lost and scattered in history – as young Africans, we do not fully know who we are. As we grow up, pieces of ourselves may be lost in the ways in which our names are butchered and shortened to make them more ‘pronounceable’ for our white peers and teachers; our cultural practices are often ‘against the school rules’, and so we unwillingly sacrifice our heritage on the altar of compliance and conformity in order to safeguard our futures. Very few of my white friends have had to sacrifice the same parts of themselves in order to receive an education or have a shot at becoming successful. Seldom did they have to twist their tongues into submission to engage in a language that was used to delete their ancestors from history; seldom were they required to critically engage with their inherited complicity so that they can hold in tandem that they are not to blame for what happened and that they continue to benefit from it and that their fellow learners of colour don’t have to hold their guilt.

At the same time, we have paralysed young people of colour in this country, especially black children, by making them experts in the study of their oppression such that the focus of much historical teaching is on the ways in which we have been disempowered. I am a firm believer that black and brown children deserve so much more than to be forced to remember themselves only as slaves and indentured servants to colonisers. Black girls deserve so much more than to be forced to remember their foremothers only as sexualised subjects of violence and violation. We deserve so much more than a history of conquest as though we were passive participants in our own subjugation. We deserve the right to remember ourselves, our parents, our ancestors as people who fought viciously and valiantly to keep their land, their families, their cultures and their communities safe and protected. We deserve a memory of ourselves not only as fighters and warriors, but also as thinkers, inventors, philosophers, doctors, taxonomists, pharmacists, counsellors, midwives, etc. – as people who held these titles and practised these roles long before these jobs were given names and a price in our capitalist economy.

We deserve the right to put our stories back together as a way of putting ourselves back together.

Apart from the purpose of remembering collectively and alone, memory also offers us something else. Memory is the birthplace of hope. To place it in familial terms, if hope is the child, memory is her mother and critical thought is the midwife that allows for a healthy delivery. For hope to exist, it can only be rooted in story. Hope is not baseless; it does not emerge out of thin air. If, however, we are to have a healthy hope, we cannot leave memory uninterrogated. Rebecca Solnit refers to history as our collective memory.

Our history is a question of what we all remember, but it is also about what we are able to remember together. For us to remember together, we must practise humility, a comfort with complexity and a justice-inspired suspicion. We must ask: Who and what is remembered? Who and what is considered worth remembering? Who does the remembering? We must avoid stories that are uncomplicated and nicely wrapped with shiny ribbons. If we reduce our stories of ourselves to only perfect golden ages of victory and advancement; or only to grief, defeat and complete conquest, we do ourselves a great injustice. In many ways, when it comes to history, the more a story sounds neat and uncomplicated, the more likely it is that the story is inaccurate.

We must learn to flex our muscles for discomfort; to become accustomed to stories about both our victories and our losses, our mistakes and our wisdom, our complicity in injustice and our crusades against it. For young people in this country to forge a healthy identity, their presence in history must both implicate them and vindicate them because their stories are connected.

In October 2016, I interviewed Ntate Zulumathabo Zulu on my 702 radio show, Friday Night Talk. We were discussing his amazing work on the Basotho Origins of Mathematics and he explained how the ancient Basotho’s belief in the cosmos led them to develop a vocabulary around various arithmetic sequences. The development of this vocabulary helped their children to grasp arithmetic through the games they learned to play at an early age. One of these games is called diketo. Children would dig a hole in the ground with about 12 stones. Then they would throw a stone up in the air, remove a stone from the group of stones, catch the stone they threw up and repeat the process. After each lap, the total number of stones left in the hole could decrease by a stone or more.

Diketo comes down to the formula f(x)=x-1, which we today know as a recursive system. Recursive systems exist as a term in seSotho known as legotla; this is something that we have been aware of for centuries – something that six-year-old African children are able to grasp quite quickly. In isiXhosa, this game is known as uphuca. In Western society, an intimate understanding of these recursive systems is reserved for discussion among engineering students at university.

The value of this knowledge is not just in knowing that there were black people hundreds of years ago who could do maths. It is rather about the fact that young people, specifically children, can find and situate themselves in the history, the present and the future of these scientific endeavours – which are considered valuable, revolutionary, and critical to human existence. Imagine how many black and brown children in this country are afraid of mathematics because it is presented to them as foreign, and not as something that is as close to their lived experience as a childhood game. I have often wondered how many of our children do not pursue their dreams to become engineers, astrologists, architects, doctors, physicists because they think they can’t do functional algebra – whereas they have been doing algebra since they were six years old. It just was not called algebra, it was called diketo or uphuca!

This knowledge also offers liberation for white children in South Africa, whose relationship with the notion of being white and African is at best complicated. It is extremely important for white children to develop a deep respect and reverence for African knowledge in a way that does not exoticise ‘African- ness’, but situates it deeply as a part of who they are. It is critical for their development of a healthy sense of self, to see what originates in Africa as desirable for who they want to be, not something they are above or something they need to transcend. Perhaps it even offers a greater opportunity for white children and their parents to heal themselves, knowing that what their ancestors may have considered unimportant and inferior knowledge, they can now hold with honour and share in that history as a form of epistemic restitution by restoring African knowledge and history as a primary source of their stories of themselves in Africa.
Despite the efforts to divide us and suggest that we are an ‘un-storied’ people in this country, in this continent of Africa, for young people especially, looking back at history is a way of reclaiming our freedom. It does not always mean that we will find pleasant stories or simple, straightforward ones. When we critically inspect our histories, none of us come out completely faultless, but we will find something, and we can learn.

Something shifted within me when I learned that uphuca was my first introduction to functional algebra. Part of my looking back is how I have learned to put myself back together again.

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