Saturday, December 12, 2009

The nostalgic condition

I read an extract from Jacob Dlamini's "Native nostalgia" (Jacana 2009) today, which got me thinking. He speaks of a range of anxieties at the heart of his nostalgia:

"I am concerned" he writes in the introduction, "that , in its technocratic drive to erase the legacies of apartheid and bring about economic development, the ANC has created an anti-politics machine in which black people - who allegedly suffered the same way, struggled the same way and lived the same way under apartheid - feature as nothing more than the objects of state policies, or, worse, passive recipients of state-led service delivery".

When I was lecturering theology at the Federal Theological Seminary in the 1980s, I came across several students who were Black Consciousness Movement proponents. I have to say, I am extremely glad I came across them, because they did a whole lot to shape my thinking and my politics. And I really wish, very sincerely, that many more white people had the opportunity to live cheek by jowel with people such as them. Because they never gave me an inch!

They were deep thinkers, most of them. (Some of them were seriously damaged racists, but they were very few and far between). But in the majority, they had come to Black Consciousness through a profound philosophical and intellectual journey. Almost always some of the really critical turning-point moments in their political lives had been caused by white aggression, or white brutality, or white racists. In general, I found them to be somewhat more conservative than their ANC counterparts, but also more radical in relation to their politics. Or perhaps, the latter was just the way I experienced things, because I was the nearest white around. But rightly, or wrongly, I seemed to detect that there was always some element of fairly unbending conservatism as a basic thrust - in relation to culture, tradition and philosophy.

Dlamini distinguishes between what he calls "reflective nostalgia" which is "essentially a revelation that "longing and critical thinking are not opposed to each other, because affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgement or critical reflection" - and "native nostalgia".

Then what would "native nostalgia" be? It is, according to Dlamini, a "modest contribition to continuing attempts to rescue South African history and the telling of it from what ... has [been] correctly identified as the distorting master narrative of black dispossession that dominates the historiography of the struggle".

This "master narrative" wants us to believe that all black people experienced apartheid in the same way. That they all suffered in the same way and that they all, in some way, fought against apartheid - and in the same way. But of course, this is patently untrue. It is "Native nostalgia" and it is extraordinarily dangerous, because what it does is to create a world view shorn of difference, or of nuance or of challenge, other than that which it has defined and circumscribed.

It is this nostalgia which can produce the statements "we blacks believe" or "we blacks understand" or "we blacks prefer". The truth is far from this, because of the sheer diversity,complexity and nuance which is available in any culture or group.

But the tragedy is, that once you have defined the world as such, and once you have convinced enough people the the world really is like that, it becomes something quite close to heresy to suggest anything different.

I used to listen, seriously and intently to my black conciousness students telling me that "Black is beautiful". And of course, I could see the obvious importance of that view. When all you have ever heard, throughout your life, is that white is beautiful and Black is second-class and undesirable, the assertion that "Black is beautiful" is indeed a liberating one. It took a certain sophistication and intellectual agility to move beyond that assertion - and many of my students appeared not to be able to make that leap - not during the years that I was with them, anyway.

But they were always stymied and extraordinarily irritated by me when I asked them the question "is Lucas Mangope beautiful?" (Mangope was a "Homeland" leader. A black puppet dictator, created by, financed by and protected by the apartheid state. He was a vicious "Uncle Tom"). Was this black beautiful?, I would ask.

Naturally, it was not easy for them to answer yes. But they also did not want to answer no. And the reason behind that was that then their whole ediface started to become unstable. Steve Biko had a brilliant answer. He called the Mangopes of the world "non-white", cleverly co-opting the terminology of the apartheid state for his own purposes. But Biko was neither nostalgic, nor sentimental. He also happened to be one of the greatest brains South Africa has ever produced. He saw the problem of making all people one thing. Even all in one particular group, one thing. It is, simply, not possible.

So, Jacob Dlamini's anxiety, to my mind, is spot on. Nostalgia of the type he describes, has the effect of seriously objectifying people, and treating them as a same-thinking, same-feeling blob.

The truth is, they are not. It is a critical mistake to see them as such. However to take the other path, one would be forced to give up some of the monochrome view of the universe which has been developed so lovingly and so relentlessly, over the years.

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