Memoirs Take a Daring Turn in South Africa

M. Neelika Jayawardane

Personal accounts of the apartheid and post-apartheid years take on a therapeutic role that is both painful and necessary.

In South Africa, a deluge of new memoirs on the shelves of any book store run adjacent to the “self-help” section even as they maintain a strict separation. What does the rapid rise in the popularity of these two interrelated genres tell us about the urge to publicize private life? After all, both genres are predicated on defining the “real” and the “authentic,” and on building denouements that include personal transformations and “self-actualization.” Memoirs, just like self help books, have the special capacity to extend “the reader’s sympathies or allow … them to therapeutically face their own anxieties and fears through the courageous openness of a surrogate,” in the words of Linda Anderson, a scholar of autobiographical writing. And both share an embedded imperative: the desire to use revelation to enlighten and transform readers by helping them climb out of ignorance and shame.

The apartheid state was obsessed with controlling the national narrative, as well as the stories that people told, believed, and internalized about themselves and others. A nation that until recently policed those borders using surveillance, legislation, state-mandated violence and community policing, South Africa is still obsessed in many ways with using racial classification to structure individual and group identity. But since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings of the mid-1990s, South Africans’ impulse to reveal encounters between the personal and the political has revised many apartheid-era fictions. Memoirs have taken on a special power, destabilizing long-held myths about neighbors that one had maintained at a legislated distance, and challenging attempts to whitewash the past. Individuals’ stories have become a legitimate aspect of making new national history.

With the fall of apartheid came the first personal accounts about South Africa’s liberation movements, particularly from the African National Congress (ANC). As media scholar Sean Jacobs of The New School notes, these volumes “tended to gloss over the intraparty struggles and uncertainty within the movement, favoring instead a heroic narrative about triumph over adversity.” These works included Ahmed Kathrada’s Memoirs; George Bizos’ Odyssey to Freedom; Barry Gilder’s Songs and Secrets, and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Indeed, Mandela himself became all too aware of the attempts intended to paint him as an icon of an equally faultless political struggle. In his final work, Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, he tries to deflect this push by revealing his all-too-human failings and detailing how he worked to become a formidable political strategist rather than a saint.

Alongside the ANC members’ narratives are memoirs by white South Africans who had political clout and connections to the then-ruling National Party, offering insight from the inside into what the last years of the apartheid regime were like. Willie Esterhuyse’s Endgame: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid, for instance, chronicles how the national intelligence service contacted him to participate in secret talks with key ANC members. These officials, together with Afrikaner “thought leaders” such as himself, were instrumental to negotiating an end to apartheid. As he describes it, informal connections and personal friendships, developed through carefully engineered meetings, were key to spearheading political change between people who were openly hostile toward one another.

Many new memoirs also fall under a category that one friend derisively calls, “My Apartheid Boyhood.” These are mainly white male authors who chronicle the years they spent “not knowing” the truth about the country’s tragic racial divide. While many writers in this category are almost farcical in their use of the memoir to absolve themselves of responsibility, some narratives are genuinely poignant. Donald McRae’s revelations in Under Our Skin: A White Family’s Journey Through South Africa’s Darkest Years stands out in part due to the clarity of his prose and honesty about his family’s initial obliviousness to the violent injustices around them. We learn how the elder McRae, a man on his way to becoming a chief executive at the electrical utility Eskom, traveled to Soweto to talk with members of the ANC, and how he tried to deliver electricity to Soweto during a time when this was unthinkable. The younger McRae does not self-aggrandize or self-flagellate. However, he recognizes that even what appears to be his private hell was actually a sign of his privilege. He was able to leave for England to escape conscription into the army, while millions had no choice but to suffer the confinements of apartheid. His story makes clear why the fear of losing comfort and security often binds a person to very limited acts of revolution.

Other more recent works run headlong against the concerted push by ruling ANC elite to fashion a more favorable political story while it tries to cling to power. As the philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe puts it, “the re-emergence of official culture” in South Africa means that its leadership “seeks to tame and domesticate its population by establishing official distinctions between the accepted and the unacceptable, the permitted and the forbidden, the normal and the abnormal.” He also points out that the “re-emergence of official culture has coincided with the intellectual decay of the ruling party.” In other words, an elite’s attempts to control discourse often coincides with the growing understanding that its unquestioned ascent is over, and that it is about to lose control of the population.

This disjuncture in the history of the ANC is bookmarked by the arrival of new memoirs that challenge official versions of history. They mark the passing of a moment when there was collective hope for a victorious revolution that would make citizenship more equitable. In some ways, this deluge of South African “counter-narratives” – stories that run against official history — signals the wreckage of that utopian dream.

Gillian Whitlock, in Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, notes that counter-narratives emphasize the political power inherent in recording and disseminating life stories. When the state or the official liberation movement goes to “extraordinary lengths … to deny a face and a history (that is to say, an autobiographical presence)” to an individual, such acts of censure and censorship indicate “that attaching an autobiography to an individual can be a powerful act of resistance.” As such, a new generation of women’s “counter-memoirs” reflects an unprecedented level of personal urgency, uncovering taboo subjects, and communicating painful experiences that were deemed inconvenient for the heroic narrative of the “struggle.”

Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children, for example, is written as a letter from a Xhosa grandmother to the generations that stretch before her eyes. Magona combines elements of memoir, instruction booklet, and historical account, destabilizing the authority of official apartheid-era narratives and the impulse to maintain strict separations between categories, whether they are literary genres or personal stories by ordinary people. Emma Mashinini’s Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life and Pat Fahrenfort’s Spanner in the Works follow the trajectory of working-class women into the halls of power. Mashinini chronicles her role in trade union organizing and gender activism; Fahrenfort records her experience as a woman who began her career gluing spines to books on the factory floor in a time when such jobs were advertised for “fair-skinned coloureds” — before she ultimately climbed the ranks to be appointed a deputy director in the Ministry of Labour.

Another compelling work is Pregs Govender’s Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination, which chronicles her deeply personal investment in liberation — a liberation that is meant to go far beyond the official parameters of the political struggle. Govender’s humor, humility, and her wry take on the hard-headedness of women who decided to follow the men in leadership — many of whom believed that only their will must be followed — is refreshingly honest.

 Also of note is Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile, edited by Lauretta Ngcobo, a collection of seventeen stories by activist women about the years struggling abroad. Such stories are hardly ever included in official discourse. Most of the women fled to avoid imprisonment, leaving children behind with their families, and ended up exiled in Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. They were not exactly welcomed abroad. In Botswana, they were shocked to find that they would be “interrogated and photographed like criminals,” writes Carmel Chetty. Those who went to Algeria were constantly followed. In Zambia, Ngcobo was not accepted as a bona fide member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) because only men joined the struggle. When she and the other women exiles formed a women’s group, raising funds to help support their families, their team was summoned to the Lusaka PAC office, where they were told they had to submit all their documents, including bank records. The Zambian men then withdrew all the money from the bank for their own purposes. “That ended the dream of supporting women on the home front,” writes Ngcobo.

Despite my optimism about the power of memoirs, I have to remind myself that they have their limitations. There is a clear disconnect between the “truth” and “reality” that these works feign to produce. The heroic examples mirror the desired narrative of the “struggle years,” culminating in each heroic figure’s role in building the “New South Africa.” In turn, memoirs that fall into either the “Struggle Activist” or “The Good White Man” category may gloss over the complexities and the deliberate, violent separations that are all too real in the “negotiated settlement” that is South Africa today. Sean Jacobs maintains that many self-narratives in post-apartheid South Africa are, “for the most part, tales of inspiration, struggle and difficulty, lessons learned, and ultimate triumph.” This means that power dynamics are downplayed, conflicting experiences of leaders and followers are fused, and racial experiences of resistance are subsumed in the grey idealism of “non-racialism.” By leaving out so much, these memoirs mirror the desired, official narrative of the new South African state. They re-inscribe the idea of a progressive, united triumph over apartheid, devoid of internal divisions or repressions.

I also worry that narratives chronicling how black South Africans overcame debilitating inequalities encourage views about their “intrinsic” ability to endure and be resilient in the face of apartheid history and neoliberal violence. Far from questioning apartheid stereotypes, the long-suffering nature of the downtrodden is offered as a form of triumphalism. Those at the receiving end of the worst of apartheid get the message that they can make their way out of extreme poverty by making good choices, and that it is within the individual’s ability to overcome all violence with hard work and willpower. Such self-help rhetoric tells us that people confronting dire circumstances often find strength and hope in the miraculous. But it also signals the failure of the state. Indeed, such rhetoric is often used, sometimes inadvertently by well-meaning people, to maintain the disenfranchised in their place by reinforcing a violent brand of exclusion through a fairytale that maintains that they could “rise up” if only they worked harder.

Nonetheless, if we can keep these limitations in mind, South African memoirs offer remarkable diversity. They include chronicles of the glorious journeys of revolutionaries; records of recovery from apartheid-era propaganda and willful amnesia; and the experiences of ordinary citizens as they discover how disenfranchised they continue to be in the new South Africa. The newer works, in particular, can be regarded as social texts that engage in nation building, both speaking in support of the official narrative and seeking to reveal its false promises. This generation of memoirs is a project of re-envisioning the way authors see themselves and thereby transform how the nation sees itself. They underscore the new, more urgent role in how the nation’s citizens make sense of their collective history — and their personal story.


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About The Author:

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English and creative writing at the State University of New York-Oswego. She writes frequently for the blog Africa is a Country and tweets @sugarintheplum.