South Africa is Losing its Memory


At the foot of Ngquza mountain in the rural Pondoland region of South Africa stands a monument to the “Forgotten Heroes” — so named in honor of the Pondo warriors who were slaughtered in 1960 when they challenged the military might of the apartheid state. Censorship saw to it at the time that media made little mention of massacre, and to this day there is still nothing about it the history books of the new South Africa.

So the monument is aptly named. But its aptness has today taken on a further, unintended and depressing significance. This symbol of pride commemorating resistance and defiance may just as well be a reminder of the filth of an ethos turned unheroic, because just down the road from Ngquza mountain, children are starving. They are starving because of the greed, corruption and indifference of local government officials who disregard the values of those whose sacrifices brought the bureaucrats to power.

According to official figures, nearly 1 000 malnourished children have over the past six months been admitted to Eastern Cape hospitals where 150 of them died of malnutrition. Pondoland, the site of the Forgotten Heroes monument, is the area hardest hit. It is also the area where inhabitants complain most of local government corruption. Funds intended for poverty alleviation and community projects are simply disappearing without trace. Two senior officials including a town mayor are currently facing criminal charges of fraud.

The inertia of law enforcement officers in failing to arrest a greater number of corrupt officials is in marked contrast to the enthusiasm displayed by police in eradicating marijuana cultivation in Pondoland. The outlaw cash crop has traditionally clothed and fed entire families, and paid for the education of children. But police helicopters spraying potentially harmful herbicides in military-style operations have now virtually wiped out the region’s sole source of income — “Pondo Gold”. The climate, soil content and rugged terrain are unsuited to the cultivation of other crops.

This, together with official corruption, has led to the recent, dramatic surge in malnutrition and starvation. Government bureaucrats say visible drug controls have to be carried out in order to comply with the qualifying criteria of international aid donors. Financial aid would be withdrawn if drug control measures were not seen to be enforced. Consequently, what Pondoland now has is a bizarre situation in which the traditional income of the poor has been terminated, while the resultant development aid inflow is apparently ending up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

Meanwhile, nobody in government seems to have noticed that Pondoland provides an ideal environment for growing non-narcotic hemp variants of the marijuana plant as an alternative source of industrial pulp. Environmental lobbyists point out this would allow the hard-pressed timber industry to meet market demands by making available to the building construction and other sectors large quantities of timber customarily used for manufacturing paper products.

The specific circumstances in Pondoland are unique to that region, but in a wider context the contradictions of policy implementation or lack of implementation in Pondoland reflect a national malaise which is neither random nor isolated. It is structural and systemic. The government, if it is to retain credibility with large sections of the South African electorate, will have to get a grip on such matters – including its adoption of conservative, foreign-influenced policies in preference to innovative, local solutions.

At its recent policy conference, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) did not announce any major changes. There may be two possible explanations for this – either the current policies were considered to be so good that they did not need changing, or nobody wanted to admit the policies had simply not been implemented. Several government departments lack the capacity to disburse ample funds available for important development projects, including large amounts of money earmarked for job creation and training schemes, and for poverty alleviation. This is bad news in a country with very high levels of employment and even higher food prices.

Considering that the ANC-led government has been in power for eight years, its failures to implement development policies add fuel the criticisms of its opponents. In a country where black people were once kept away from the levers of power on the grounds that they were intellectually incapable of operating them, charges of incompetence made by whites take on a certain currency. This does not mean such charges should not be made or that they might not be valid. But if they are to be fair, criticisms should also take into account the continuing legacy of underdevelopment and other consequences flowing from a long history of slavery, colonialism, fascism and racial hatred.

Neo-fascist critics and quasi-leftist critics alike somehow manage to turn a blind eye to what the government has in fact achieved. Nearly two million black families have been moved from huts and shacks to better housing. There is free medical care for the needy, free primary schooling, and the provision of clean water and sanitation where none existed before. This the government has accomplished without any help from the half a million mainly white university graduates and skilled professionals who jumped ship and emigrated rather than serve under a democratically elected black government.

Certainly there is a lot to criticise by those who are determined to be miserable, and much needs to be done before the country can honestly lay claim to the title of “New South Africa”. If real change is to occur, the government’s main thrust must be to get rid of lazy, incompetent and corrupt civil servants. Those who are merely inefficient should either accept their weaknesses and work purposefully towards improving their abilities, or get the hell out of the public service and make way for properly motivated individuals.

This might speed up policy implementation and improve the lives of ordinary people, delivering in the process a serious blow to the grinding poverty that has reduced a significant portion of the population to beggars and outlaws.

One way of motivating civil servants might be to infuse in them some of the values that were fought for by people such as the Forgotten Heroes. More broadly, there is also an urgent need to educate an entire nation still unable to come to terms with its past while a sad, new and marginalised history unfolds quietly in places like Pondoland. Current historical discourse is shaped instead by the starry-eyed objective of creating a new national identity — an identity transformed from that of the discredited past and reflecting a contented, happily reconciled “rainbow nation”.

In this process of “nation building” there is much intellectual snivelling about whose victory, whose defeat and whose perspective should be conveyed. From the comfort of their mainly white middle-class surroundings, some academics seem as divided as South Africa’s segregated past as over the portrayal of its history. Meanwhile, back in the real world, South Africa is losing its memory and lapsing into a permanent state of collective amnesia.

Forgetting to remember is not necessarily be a bad thing in capitalist terms – it induces an illusory sense of stability, thereby encouraging investor confidence. But, in forgetfulness of the past, vast sections of the public can also be lulled into a relaxation of vigilance — as evidenced by nine right-wing terror bombs that exploded recently in Soweto (during the night of October 30, 2002). The resultant loss of life and major disruption caused would have been avoided had the public generally been more vigilant and less complacent about the realities of the present which derive from the past.

A similar forgetfulness extends itself to South Africa’s new social movements, which rail against the South African government’s “neo-liberal economic policies” at a time when the country’s historical realities are far more complex than off the shelf terms such as “neo-liberalism” are capable of capturing.

In the triumphal aftermath of freedom from apartheid, the South African liberation movement found itself in a post-Cold War world-historical situation fundamentally hostile to its socialist aspirations. After the disintegration of the socialist and non-aligned blocs there was no opposing force to the United States’ increasing hegemony. The collapse of the Soviet deterrent in particular made British and American military power more threatening as a foreign policy instrument against those who contemplated seizing strategic Western assets. Hence in part the liberation movement’s abandonment of plans to nationalise key foreign assets in the mining and the banking sectors.

Even with a Soviet deterrent, history had four decades earlier demonstrated convincingly how the West would react to regional nationalizers of Western interests. The known instances are well documented. When Egypt nationalized the Suez canal in the 1950s there was swift and overwhelming overt military intervention by the West. When Iran nationalized the oil industry the Mosaddeq government was overthrown at US instigation. Barely half a century later, considerations of this nature are markedly absent from the railings of the international anti-globalization movement in its snivelling indictments of South Africa’s “neo-liberal economic policies”.

Well-intentioned though the objectives of the anti-globalization lobby might be, the poor results of its energetic efforts cry out for an analytical synthesis addressing some of the tensions inherent in integrating history and political activism. A good place to start would be for activists to shift their focus from soft targets such as the South African government and concentrate instead on the formidable purveyors of international monopoly capital, and the Anglo-American military industrial complex.

(The author is a South African journalist. For an insightful analysis of the loss of institutional memory resources in South Africa, see Verne Harris, Truth and Reconciliation: an exercise in forgetting)

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