South Africa: Between Hope and Reconciliation

Published as part of the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, Improvising Reconciliation turns to the cultural sphere in South Africa in order to rethink reconciliation. In this blog post, author Ed Charlton discusses the hopeful visions and the sense of doubt in South Africa’s reconciliation.

Thirty years after apartheid’s end, much has changed in South Africa. But not necessarily for the better. Or, at least, not entirely. Whether we cite the spate of political violence seen recently in protests against the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma or the murderous scenes witnessed at Marikana in 2012, it is clear that it is a country still divided. Where previously these divisions fell across strict racial lines, more and more it is ethnicity and class that serve to separate people. Doubtless, there have been many hopeful scenes in the years since apartheid’s end, beginning most obviously with the ebullience that surrounded the first democratic elections in 1994. Global sporting successes, too, have served to bring the country together in ways unthinkable for generations past. The image of Siya Kolisi lifting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, which now hangs some ten stories high in downtown Johannesburg, provides an obvious example. As the first black player to captain the Springboks, Kolisi has become the face for an integrated, reconciled future.

But these symbolic achievements cannot make up for the deep disparities that continue to plague the majority of the country’s citizenry. For the basic structures of racial inequality erected under colonial and apartheid rule remain a common feature of everyday life. Some critics, like the oral historian Sean Field, have described apartheid’s stubborn, unjust afterlife as a type of melancholy survival. By this, they mean to capture the repetitive, compulsive, seemingly intransigent form that this historical record of injustice has since adopted. In my book, Improvising Reconciliation, I share this pessimistic outlook. For all the talk about reconciliation and the just possibilities to come under democracy, it is important to recognise the more general sense of doubt against which these hopeful visions also labour. Whatever the optimism that emerged with Nelson Mandela’s election, it is clear that South Africa’s transition must be understood as a long and difficult process. This is not to give up on reconciliation as an idea or even an ideal. Instead, as I argue in my introductory pages, it is to uphold this type of language for more strategic than essential reasons. In many ways, reconciliation must be made to adapt to the shifting realities of the past thirty years, a period in which the basic demand for freedom has been overtaken by equally important calls for material restitution and economic redistribution.

As I understand it, then, to talk about the improvisational in the same space as reconciliation is to search out a language through which to gather together these evolving demands, without also losing sight of their difficult, often painful origins. As a way of thinking and doing reconciliation, improvisation tries to learn from the failures of the past. It is an iterative process, one acutely aware of its own situated constraints as well as its own imaginative possibilities. In other words, it pays careful attention to the past even as it aims at a distant future horizon. But there are also other, more contextual reasons for my interest in this method. For my research is also about the creative acts of improvisation ongoing within South Africa’s cultural sphere. Turning to a suite of theatrical and filmic examples, all of which emerged in the first decade of democracy, I try to locate a tradition of improvised creativity that is also eager to evolve our understanding of what an idea like reconciliation might yet achieve. In theatre-makers like Yaël Farber and filmmakers like Ramadan Suleman, Mark Kaplan, and Ingrid Gavshon, I discover a coterie of committed practitioners, each of whom refuse to give up on the possibility of racially just future, even as they recognise the long and heavy shadow cast by the past. Guarding against the triumphalism that sometimes stalks talk about reconciliation, then, these works alert us to an alternative, less decided way of thinking and doing reconciliation, one that begins with the claims of the victims and survivors of apartheid, rather than the priorities of the state. As I suggest in my reading of these works, this can sometimes prove a less than satisfying endeavour. But this is also the very basis for any successful democratic order, which must allow for dissensus even as it strives for its reverse, consensus. Indeed, whatever else may said of South African democracy, it is a place rich in debate, in contestation and active protest. And, in the end, it is this ongoing urge to challenge the disappointments of democracy that will allow it flourish in the future. 

For more information on Improvising Reconciliation or to read it Open Access, visit our website.

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