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OPINION History is what hurts

The film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel Gone Girl opens and closes with the chilling lines: "Who are we? What have we become? How did we get here?" The psychological thriller unfolds through the juxtaposed narratives of the lead characters Amy and Nick Dunne as the reader is taken through the archives of their complex, personal history from their single to married lives and the eventual disappearance of Amy, in an attempt to give full colour to each of their stories. But the reader eventually learns that both are unreliable narrators.

The way that we narrate events and history in both personal and public life is fraught with similar complexities. While it might seem strange to intersect popular culture and political memory, the questions asked by Flynn's protagonist, Nick, have resonances with our attempts to make sense of the state of contemporary democracy, history and public memory in South Africa.

The way we narrate history, what will become the history of books, popular memory and public discourse, is similarly fraught with the dilemmas of unreliable narration, and the rhetoric that is often entangled in the language of these narratives.

As I argued in an article for Africa is a Country on remembering slave history last year: "History is both 'what happened' and 'that which has been said to have happened', as Michel Rolph-Trouillot writes. In taking stock of who we are and what we have become as a nation, our history, and the dilemmas of citizenship that we face, there are lessons to be learned from cultural critic Stuart Hall. In What is this 'black' in black popular culture? he writes: ''I begin with a question: What sort of moment is this in which to pose the question of black popular culture? These moments are always conjunctural. They have their historical specificity; and although they always exhibit similarities and continuities with other moments in which we pose a question like this, they are never the same moment."

The importance of Hall's argument for questions of the South African nation is the way he thinks about time. There is an overwhelming tendency, particularly in the 'post-colony', to think about time, or particularly the history of oppression, not as a continuous series - what Hall would argue is time as 'always conjunctural' and with 'similarities and continuities - but rather as blocks or epochs that are cut off from each other by events. The very phrase 'post-colony' speaks of this phenomenon. In this kind of thinking, time is configured through the binary logic of difference, and emerges as colonial/post-colonial; apartheid/post-apartheid; then/now; oppression/freedom - in a way that allows the former to be thought of as radically distinct from the time that came after.

This logic allows us to think about 26 April 1994 through the framework of hyper-symbolism: the idea that the march to the polls marked the absolute transcendence of the apartheid moment, and freedom itself, rather than a significant moment in the historical movement towards the achievement of freedom. But it also allows some narratives to divorce history from the present, supporting the idea that 21 years after this moment, we should have rid ourselves of its effects - with no link to the continuities, similarities and lingering pathologies of centuries of oppression that we have yet to fully deal with.

In thinking history, the discourse of nation-building offers a profoundly optimistic narrative for South Africans to make sense of the present. It was most recently appealed to by Justice Minister Michael Masutha to explain the decision to release Eugene de Kock on parole, where he stated the decision was made "in the interests of nation-building and reconciliation".

In Siphokazi Magadla's excellent piece on the release of the former commander of the Vlakplaas unit responsible for the kidnappings, torture and murder of anti-apartheid activists, she explores the violence of the discourse of nation-building with great depth and texture. Magadla opens her argument quoting German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statements marking the 70th anniversary of the 'liberation' of Auschwitz-Birkenau saying: "Crimes against humanity are not time-barred." Thinking time through difference prevents the kind of necessarily sustained historical memory and a consciousness of the imprint of the past that Merkel calls for.

Like Magadla, I wonder about the nature and form of our historical memory - particularly about the way this finds its expression in our experience of contemporary life and citizenship, historical consciousness and the memory of the past. Particularly important is her argument that the use of the term 'nation-building' in such instances 'silences the nation'.

Fallen by the wayside is any direct dealing with the legacy of oppression, that predates 1948, and as a result we keep on turning on the same questions. The way historical memory is currently configured in dominant state and public discourses is replete with a silencing that mutes the multiple voices that would depart from the language of the nation in explaining their experience of democracy.

The conversations that surround renaming of a street after FW de Klerk, the recurrence of xenophobic violence, the legacy of Jackie Selebi and the Curro school saga are events fresh in the public's consciousness, and serve as multiple reminders of the fragile state of the 'transition' and the insufficiency of the democratic ideal, when it remains the material of political speeches and paper rights. But, primarily, they stand as examples of how multiple narratives of the past and present will compete against each other, highlighting the importance of putting people, places and events in their proper historical context, and revealing how the dominant narratives of both history and the present speak the language of power and privilege.

Contesting narratives have emerged about our past. In many of these, history is bent, moulded or reshaped to fit particular arguments, which highlights the importance of putting people, places, events, theories and discourses in their proper historical context. The last lines of poet Lucille Clifton's i am accused of tending to the past speaks of the need to give history 'a more human face', 'remembering names and faces' that have been systematically silenced. To do this is to give important attention to the question 'how do we remember?'

As Magadla argues, the events of the past week "offer insights into the ways in which we can expect memory about apartheid to be kept 'alive' or to disappear into obliviousness at a high cost for both the past and the future."

In an article on De Kock in the _Mail & Guardian, _while Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela makes important, nuanced arguments about the politics of labelling 'evil', she also argues: 'Releasing De Kock would open up the possibility of a movement towards a new politics of remembrance, one that would help invigorate dialogue about the kind of future we want and the future of young South Africans.' However, while it might engender discussions, it is rare that voices on the margins are given space, that these issues are given direct address that does not see these issues as events but rather structural issues, or that the particular conversation lives and breathes beyond a news cycle. Nothing will allow us to confront where we are in history, the centre of the politics of remembrance, other than confronting it head-on.

There will be no event, occurrence nor utterance that could serve this function. We have to give the nation, and everything that it has come to embody as an idea, ideal and its relationship with reality, direct address. It cannot be couched in the language of nation-building or the discourse of democracy as a means to an end. We have to ask and take seriously the commitment to interrogation and action embodied the questions: "Who are we? What have we become? How did we get here?"

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler