Memory, forgetting and the creative spark

Posted on August 15, 2011
Public memory in South Africa continues to be marked by contradictory impulses. The need to remember and come to terms with a troubled past is tempered by the need to forget, or more perversely, to simply ignore the unresolved nature of national reconciliation through a process that has been termed 'strategic amnesia' (Law 2002).

Remembering and commemorating the victims and outrages of apartheid is more than just filling in the blanks in the official history of the country, but is viewed as necessary for achieving justice for the victims of past abuses. This is a national project that is far from being resolved in a satisfactory manner. Similarly, a democratic government has been tasked to create a public culture and protect and promote a national estate that is more representative of a democratic dispensation. This, it is argued, is needed to counter and weaken the pervasive symbols of past commemorative practices and to create new symbols around which a national identity can form.

At a more personal level both black and white authors have posed challenging questions about what it means to have lived through South Africa's recent past - a past that for many is still divided between a life lived during and after apartheid. These narratives range from biographical accounts depicting the moral dilemmas South Africans faced in responding (or not responding) to a brutal regime to more recent work that poses uncomfortable questions about what it means to have lived a happy childhood or even a meaningful life under apartheid, whether from the perspective of the township or suburb. On the one hand authors challenge readers with notions of collective guilt, culpability and shame, while on the other nostalgia of the 'ag pleez daddy' variety raise moral dilemmas for South Africans struggling to reconcile personal memories of domestic comfort and happiness set against a backdrop of national trauma. Similarly, probing works such as Jacob Dlamini's Native Nostalgia have elicited strong reactions for challenging deeply engrained perceptions of townships as being uncritically reduced to mere sites of struggle, or post 1994, sites for development and service delivery (Dlamini 2009). For Dlamini such views deny the complexity - and richness - of black urban life under apartheid.

All this remembering, memorialising and, even fictionalising, have led some to argue that there is a 'glut of remembering' in South Africa at work. Others, such as Ivan Vladislavic calls for forgetting and an escape from the past. 'How much past can the present bear?' he asks in his latest novel, Double Negative.

These and other pertinent questions were examined at a recent public panel discussion titled 'On Creativity and Memory' which was held at the Wits Great Hall. The panel, chaired by cultural commentator and author Mark Gevisser, formed a part of the Apartheid Archive Project conference, 'Nationhoods, Nostalgia, Narratives'. Participants included Nadine Gordimer, William Kentridge, Zoã Wicomb, Chris van Wyk and Hugh Masekela.

For Van Wyk, using the past as creative inspiration in the form of the novel or memoir need not entail uncritical nostalgia. Fiction writing - even when the tone of the writing is primarily humorous - is a way of creating an anti-narrative that can question and even subvert the past. Reading from his highly acclaimed novel Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, Van Wyk, for example, uses the image of comic books being traded by teenagers from township to suburb and back to township as symbolic of how strict apartheid era racial boundaries were imperceptibly bridged by South Africans on a daily basis through the mutually shared love of DC Comics. His writing at once normalises, even universalises, life in a coloured township under apartheid while creating a genuinely enduring South African account of childhood. Thus Van Wyk troubles the past. He recalls for example reading newspapers as a child and young adult and feeling that 'white people made the world happen'. Through fiction such tropes can be subverted, while bringing to life the richness and texture of a happy, if sometimes difficult, childhood.

In contrast, for author and novelist Zoã Wicomb the act of forgetting is as important as remembering as it allows the individual to escape the narrow confines of the past, something that is essential for becoming not only an adult but a writer as well. Wicomb cautions that the act of remembering can be unreliable as it carries similarities and close affinities with narration, invention and creative elaboration. Memory can trigger, 'where one thing leads to another', but should never be the 'negative yearning' characteristic of nostalgia.

Memory, as Gordimer asserts, is not passive recollection. But for writers, memory serves as a process for 'igniting creativity'. As in the case of Marcel Proust writers 'are always in search of time lost'. Creativity is therefore about recovering or imagining 'from something that exists or has existed in our consciousness'. Nostalgia on the other hand is a sentimental and escapist concept that must be resisted.

Using his 2003 short film, Tide Table, as reference, William Kentridge demonstrates how a historical association (in this case the life and work of Congolese musician Franco) can set a creative process in motion. According to Kentridge the music of Franco, in this case the song Likambo Ya Ngana (Franco & L'OK Jazz, 1972) was the starting point for the film - a film that shows how the past works its way into the future, exploring generational relationships but also relationships to the younger self. For Kentridge a creative engagement with the past necessarily also entails an element of regret.

Similarly, for musician and memoirist Hugh Masakela his musical career can be seen as an act of restoration, mining the 'wealth of content' and 'the unlimited artistry' he heard as a child growing up in a township in Witbank. Committed to archiving this heritage, Masakela sees his work as a vital act of restoration.


Dlamini, J. (2009). Native Nostalgia. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.

Law, J. (2002). The Full Catastrophe: The Beginning of the End. In Penny Siopis: Sympathetic Magic. Johannesburg: Wits University, page 36.

Van Wyk, C. (2005). Shirley, Goodness & Mercy: A Childhood Memoir. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.

Vladislavic, I. (2011). Double Negative. Cape Town: Umuzi.

Jacques Stoltz is a specialist consultant in urban heritage and tourism