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OPINION: Guarding against selective memory

On 11 February 2016, as President Jacob Zuma was preparing to deliver his State of the Nation Address the next day, South Africa marked two important days. It was on 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela strode out of Victor Verster prison in Paarl like a colossus. As South Africans, nothing quite prepared us for that momentous day; the once vilified Madiba fist in the air, now a free man. Could our country have imagined such a day of overwrought emotion as thousands waited for him on the Grand Parade in Cape Town?

As Zuma spoke in Parliament in 2016, the contrasts could not have been greater. How did we descend so fast from the iconic, principled Madiba to a compromised president determined to use the state as a personal means of patronage? How did we find ourselves as citizens in a country with a founding president as a bridge-builder, to one who would only sow division and govern in his own interests?

But then South Africa is a country laced with irony. As Zuma spoke, with barbed wire surrounding Parliament and the people everywhere absent, down the road at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, David Kramer's new musical District 6 - Kanala was having its opening night. For it was on 11 February 1966 that District Six was declared a 'whites only' area as families in the district were left to watch their homes being bull-dozed. The coloured families moved out of the centre of town would be relocated courtesy of the apartheid government, to what has become known as the Cape Flats - Lavender Hill, Bonteheuwel and Mitchell's Plain. And that changed Cape Town's spatial landscape forever. It changed the fundamental fabric of our city and today, District 6 remains a wasteland as bureaucrats still wrestle with land claims.

Cities are about the people in them and the stories they have to tell. Cities are about diversity and no-one tells the stories of Cape Town or South Africa better than David Kramer who produced _District 6 - Kanala _specifically to mark the 50th anniversary of the forced removals. Together with his late musical partner, Taliep Petersen, Kramer has become synonymous with telling our stories sensitively and with the humour which is uniquely Cape Town and uniquely South African. Petersen died tragically and his story too was so intermeshed with that of the district and forced removals. Their collaboration in 1986 when the show District 6: The Musical first played at the Baxter Theatre was ground-breaking. That show probably broke several audience attendance records and as petty apartheid starting falling, audiences of all races flocked to listen, enjoy and learn. To Kramer and Petersen, the City of Cape Town owes an enormous debt as they used the arts to deal with some of our collective brokenness. Marking 50 years of forced removals in the Fugard Theatre was also deeply symbolic - the heart of the city now seeking a new rhythm.

Two such memories inter-twined powerfully and poignantly on 11 February 2016. And so what do these two powerful events teach us today as we live in a milieu where everything has to fall? Our hashtag environment sometimes has a very casual connection to the past and what has gone before. Our universities have become places of destruction; the torching of buildings and buses justified and the burning of artwork accepted as a response to exclusion.

Last week Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande reminded students that the mantra of the 'struggle days' and Oliver Tambo's rejoinder was that one could 'struggle and study at the same time'. Nzimande warned against the burning of artefacts and records. The argument runs that because certain artworks, or the university itself, are a 'product of whiteness', students at UCT, for instance, were justified in burning portraits as they raided one of the university residences, Fuller Hall. The portrait of Molly Blackburn was burnt in the process. It was Molly Blackburn who worked closely with Matthew Goniwe in the Lingelihle township near Cradock on issues of rent restructuring in that community. It was Blackburn too who was instrumental in agitating for investigations into police shootings in Langa in 1985. Blackburn died in 1985 and a memorial hall was named in her honour at UCT. It is trite to say that we short-change ourselves and seek to repeat the past if we seek to erase certain memories. What point did burning Blackburn's portrait serve if only to display ignorance of our past? Others too have made the argument regarding the manner of freedom of expression in a democracy and what place dialogue has to play where gratuitous violence seems to be the preferred method of engagement?

District 6 is a reminder that what the apartheid state did best was to break down and destroy families, communities and memories. By torching and burning in a democratic South Africa, do we not do the same?

Ours is a deeply unequal society and its challenges will not be solved overnight. Our universities and other institutions are charged to educate against the backdrop of such inequality. That will require innovative leadership and also partnerships between government, students and university leadership. Yet the climate of violence and destruction can surely have no place where intellectual pursuit has to happen? Part of the role of a university is truth-seeking. Whose truth? What truth, one might ask? The critical questions about teaching and learning and what art is hung where seems to be dragging us to a place of intensely narrow debate of 'them and us', or more crudely 'white or black'. The trouble is that life is rarely so binary and the production of knowledge even less so, if at all. Surely a society which prizes intellectual pursuit understands the value of Euripides as equally as it does modern day South African writers of whatever race? In our haste to a kind of nihilism or being selective about knowledge which is preferred, we diminish ourselves and surely create a society which is unable to learn from its past? And the danger therein is a new kind of oppression and censorship.

What Kramer's latest production shows is that one cannot be selective about memory and drawing lessons from the past. There is a lesson in that for a younger generation attempting to airbrush history and portray Mandela as a traitor to the struggle and the Constitution as the source of all our post-apartheid challenges. That argument ignores a fundamental point and that is that all systems require actors who exercise public power. Their failure is often linked to our collective failure to hold these elected actors to account. And so our Constitution is only as good as our desire to use it for a transformative purpose.

But that fallacious argument aside, we threaten to become a society in which sanitised knowledge and a history of the past, backed by violence becomes the new order of things.

It was Milan Kundera who said, "The struggle of man (sic) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Our past must inform our present. That will include the good, the bad and the ugly sides of it. How we engage with the legacy of our colonisers and our past can only be as useful as our ability to understand context and history. That will mean reading some of what we don't like and some of what we don't agree with and some of what we do. Open societies and universities are, after all, places where one should be able to entertain a thought without accepting it (with apologies to Aristotle) and make one's argument by persuasion and not torching.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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