Facing the past
"The past is never where we thought we left it.”
It often chooses the most inopportune moments to pop up and intimidate, impose its voice and even shout its opinion about the people we are meeting, the experiences we are having in the ‘now’. This is true of our personal pasts, but equally true of our collective past as well.
I remember our past doing this to me on many occasions, but I choose to share only one of those experiences here. It was at a Facing History and Ourselves workshop that a combination of my personal past and our collective past sneaked up on me. I was attending the five-day workshop with teachers from all over the province – urban to rural; male and female; black and white; young and old. We spent the first four days looking at our own identity - what and who shaped us and formed us. We spent time on case studies; on listening to personal stories – some devastating and tragic, others filled with hope and renewal. I was pleased that for once ALL of us could speak and interact so freely, no matter who we were or where we came from.
So far, so good!
It was the last day that would shake my world or at least my preconception of the world. I was more than willing to acknowledge that not all white South Africans were perpetrators. I was even willing to concede that often white people in apartheid South Africa never got to hear a dissenting voice that created an environment where it was so easy to accept that was simply how the world was.
But the one thing I could (would?) never concede is that white people suffered under apartheid. Sure there were those who were upstanders and resisted the injustice of the apartheid state. There were white people like Helen Suzman and Denis Goldberg who fought valiantly against the oppression of black people in South Africa. Absolutely they suffered. After all, Denis Goldberg was sentenced to life in prison as one of the Rivonia Trialists! But they suffered because of their resistance to apartheid, not because of their whiteness.
Never! I could never acknowledge that white people suffered under apartheid!
Until I heard Martie’s [not her real name] story.
Martie was one of the teacher’s at the workshop with me. She spoke with great affection about her brother. She spoke nostalgically about a vibrant, funny young man who used to tease her mercilessly. She spoke about his conscription into the South African Army at the age of 18. Slowly the tears ran down her face when she concluded her story by saying, ”My brother never came back. He came back alive, but he wasn’t my brother anymore. He was different.” She looked around the circle of teachers and asked us then (and her words still echo in my head as I write this now), “Who will give my brother back to me again?”
As the sound of her words faded away, I became aware of my own tears running down my cheeks. Without me even knowing it consciously, my humanity reached out to her humanity and both agreed that she had suffered a terrible loss. This can be affirmed in reality too, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed the forced conscription of white South African males as one of the gross human rights violations of the apartheid state. There was not a single white family in the country left untouched by this violation.
So, the baggage of my own past and our collective past, let me cling to my own victimhood and refused to allow any space for white South Africans to speak about their suffering or to acknowledge their pain in any way.
That day, as the late afternoon sun shone down on that garden where we sat, I told that part of my past to lie down quietly and to respect, acknowledge, the human suffering I saw on Martie’s face and I felt resonating in my heart.
We have to face our past. All of us. Daily. Sometimes more than once a day.
We must do this simply because we are South Africans living in our country today, together. It is even more urgent for us to do it when we are teachers and leaders of schools. Otherwise we may find our past lying around in the most unexpected places – in our staff rooms, in our classrooms and even in our playgrounds.