Ksenia Robbe: “The neglect of the ‘common’ and of issues of coloniality during the transitions is an unresolved problem, with which South Africa (and Russia) are dealing today”
Ksenia Robbe is an assistant professor at Leiden University, working in the fields of African and Russian literary and cultural studies. She grew up in Russia and was trained at the Universities of St. Petersburg and Giessen (Germany). She is the author of Conversations of Motherhood: South African Women’s Writing Across Traditions (2015) and co-editor of Post-Soviet Nostalgia: Confronting the Empire’s Legacies (2019). Her current research engages with memory of the transitional periods in post-Soviet and post-apartheid literature, theatre, and visual art of the last decade.
The authors of the questions are Alexander Stykalin, Oleg Pekar and Daniel Pekar.
Would you say if it is true that the South African Republic has two separate memory communities, the black majority and white minority? My classmate, who has lived in that country for more than thirty years, notices that after apartheid's downfall it is happened a consolidation of the, so called, “white” community, which alongside the Afrikaners (Boers), the heirs of Dutch settlers of XVII-XVIII centuries embrace the heirs of XIX-XX centuries’ immigrants from different countries, including Indian and Jewish people. Do you agree with that?
Not entirely. Of course, we can see divisions between what could be called ‘white’ and ‘black’ ways of remembering apartheid, but these categories are very generalized. South African society is quite fragmented, in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, and so forth, and I would not say that ‘white’ or ‘black’ memory has become more consolidated after the end of apartheid. Overall, the major differences in terms of memory are political rather than cultural, similarly to how it was during apartheid (though this politics of memory is often obfuscated and denied). Much depends on one’s family background and the community one grew up in, and present-day political orientation. You will find many similarities in terms of remembering apartheid among critically minded white, black, Indian and coloured people, while ‘apolitical’ (conservative) attitudes are, likewise, practiced by members of all ethnic groups.
What your friend observes, perhaps, is that many Indian or coloured people who were active in the anti-apartheid movement have ‘forgotten’ their politics overnight and became hard-core capitalists and proponents of neoliberal policies. There are many critiques and satires of this turn-around, though (such as in the novels of Imraan Coovadia). Also, this all started still under apartheid, in the late 1970s, in economic terms; and politically, in the 1980s, with the government policies of coopting the Indian and coloured population to strengthen their electoral base. Moreover, the same change of orientation has taken place among the post-apartheid black elites.
The South African Jews whom you mention are also an interesting community with its own dynamics of memory. Most of them immigrated to South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century from Eastern Europe (especially Lithuania) fleeing the pogroms. Their major strategy back then, as far as I understand, was assimilation, in terms of language and identity; many intermarried with English South Africans (not Afrikaans, though), became ‘anglicized’ and during apartheid were largely on the ‘liberal’ side. But their links to the state of Israel were also strong. Recent inquiries into the politics of memory of this community have highlighted the paradoxes of their position: on the one hand, South African Jews as victims of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, on the other, complicit with the apartheid policies in South Africa and Israel. Heidi Grunebaum’s film The Village Under the Forest (2013) unpacks this personal and collective complicity through the story of the South African Jewish community who were collecting money for a forest of trees that was planted in the place of a Palestinian village.
How would you describe the features of the main South African memory communities? Do they have the separate lists of exclusive “their own” historical events? Are there the common “places of memory”, which every community appreciates differently? How large is the worldview gap between people from black and white communities, and how it is affected by the memory of apartheid? How has this problem been solved in schools?
I’ve already started with the Jewish community, which is a ‘minor’ story, of course. But it is also a representative one. On the national scale, the 1990s and 2000s saw an attempt to create a collective memory of apartheid – a basis for the ‘rainbow nation’ – for which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995-1998) was a major vehicle. This was, most probably, an impossible task. There are many interpretations of the TRC, and what I’m saying here can’t do justice to all the nuances and simply reflects my own perspective. It was certainly a landmark process, especially in terms of enriching and in some ways changing the international practices of transitional justice – by foregrounding the notions of ‘narrative truth’ along with forensic practices, and by opening up a judicial process to personal testimonies which were delivered locally (the TRC was travelling to different regions) but which were also broadcast and, thus, engaged (inter)national audiences. But this process had serious drawbacks, especially in terms of limiting its scope to large-scale violations and ‘political’ crimes (and ignoring the structural, everyday violence of apartheid), and in its positing of ‘forgivenness’ as an aspired outcome and thus not attending to the demands of justice in a postcolonial, post-apartheid society. The latter remains a ‘thorn’ in the South African body politic that causes a lot of pain and frustration.
So, the TRC and the sites and practices of memory inspired by the politics of reconciliation and nation-building have not taken roots despite being well funded and promoted by the state. The Robben Island Museum (the former prison for political detainees such as Nelson Mandela) has remained more of a tourist attraction (though, recently, the curators have adopted more nuanced and personal strategies of presenting this history than those focused on political icons and on deploying national myths). The statues of black heroes (whether employing anti-apartheid or ‘traditional’ imagery) have not become sites of memory for larger local communities as, for example, Sabine Marshall’s research eloquently shows. But this doesn’t mean that these communities do not remember and do not commemorate their struggles against colonialism and apartheid; their commemorations simply centre on oral traditions (storytelling, songs, performances, speeches) rather than visual or monumental practices.
Generally, the continuous use of Eurocentric forms and practices of commemoration is a major obstacle to dialogic memory in South Africa. The protests against the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town and the whole #RhodesMustFall movement were a response to the failure of the South African state and institutions to develop new public memory and history. The post-apartheid institutions were working towards a compromise: building monuments and museums commemorating anti-apartheid heroes while leaving the colonial and apartheid-era landmarks in place (the many monuments to Rhodes, the Voortrekker monument, etc.). This also reflects the general politics of treating the past, such as in school curricula.
The teaching of history in South Africa is one of the critical areas: firstly, in high school (as far as I know), history is not a mandatory subject; secondly, there is minimal focus on post-1945 and contemporary history, and only schematic overview of the great moments in anti-apartheid struggle, no critical discussion, and almost no social history in general; thirdly, there is an overwhelming focus on European history (and literature) compared to African or South African. So, before we start speaking of postcolonial memory and knowledge practices at university (what the #RhodesMustFall were trying to tackle), the school curricula and practices of education must be thoroughly revised.
Returning to your question about the divided memory, it is more than a question of race: memory in South Africa is community-specific. For Afrikaners, the Anglo-Boer War is still an important site of trauma and memory. For South African Indians, especially more recently, the Indian Ocean connections, the memory of migration and indentured labour, the history of Gandhi’s life and work in Johannesburg are the reference points. There are few points of intersection – different heroes, places, audiences.
Is there any difference between the members of the white community towards understanding of British-Boer Wars? Are there any similarities with the current memories wars of the Russian “reds” and “whites” or the reconciliation had happened when one of the former Boer’s army commanders Jan Christiaan Smuts, who later become the British field marshal, shook hands with Winston Churchill, who fought against Boers?
Yes, generally, the conflicts were resolved through the post-war settlement and the compromise of sharing political and economic power, especially in the post-1948 dispensation. This is not to say that there is no stereotyping in everyday interactions. South Africans of British origin generally see themselves as superior to Afrikaners, while the latter would maintain the ‘purity’ of their language and culture to oppose the performances of purity by the white Anglophone community. But these would not involve references to the war. The memory of the war, however, at least in critical discourses, is undergoing a shift from the foundational myths of Afrikaner heroism and suffering in British concentration camps, or a fight between two groups of white settlers, towards regarding it as an episode of brutal colonization. After all, many of those who fought on the side of the Afrikaners were enslaved people, and the British were drawing on the military support of African kingdoms in the area, offering ‘deals’ to the rulers. These stories still need to become part of South Africa’s collective and cultural memory.
The Second British-Boer War had a big resonance in the World including Russia. In that time a Russian poet G. A. Galina (Glafira Einerling) wrote a song: “My Transvaal is completely on fire!” which was extremely popular. Alexander Guchkov, who was one of the leaders of the Russian right-wing liberals, participated as a volunteer and was heavily injured during that war. Does any memory in regarding the Russian solidarity still exist in South Africa?
This episode of anti-British enthusiasm and solidarity of Russians is, in fact, hardly remembered in South Africa. There was a brief rise in interest during the 1990s when diplomatic and cultural connections were restored, and Apollon Davidson, a prominent Russian historian and Africanist, wrote a few books about the history of Russian-South African relations. There was even a short story, written in Afrikaans and published in the book Boereoorlogstories (Stories of the Boer War), about a Russian nurse who volunteered during the war. But these are very marginal narratives.
The larger problem in the memory of South African-Russian relations is that all episodes of solidarity during the hey-day of apartheid (1950-80s) were totally overshadowed by the apartheid propaganda which was framing anti-apartheid activists as ‘Communists’. So, for the average white South African, all Russians are still dangerous ‘communists’, and even Putin and his politics are regarded negatively just because of that. This is not surprising given the close ties with the US during apartheid – hence the similarities to the American right-liberal discourse up until now.
Until 1961, the South African Union was a member of the British Commonwealth. Before that, South African soldiers participated in the both World Wars on the British side. For many decades there are close cultural relations with the Great Britain. How is the British Empire’s heritage receiving now? Do South African people have any involvement in the British historical memory or it is totally foreign to them?
For many white South Africans of British descent, especially those whose families immigrated to the country during the 20th century, this is still ‘their’ memory. For instance, my husband’s grandfather served in the British Army as a young man and moved to South Africa right after. Like many children in his community, my husband grew up with family memories of WWI and WWII, the pride associated with them, and much better knowledge of that history than that of the colonial wars in South Africa.
Are there among the members of white community any nostalgic reminiscences in regard to the apartheid era?
Not in public discourse, but such motifs are present. ‘White nostalgia’ (usually memories of childhood innocence) is a theme in both Afrikaans and English writing of the 2000s, as could be expected. But what’s more interesting is that nostalgia can also be traced among the black South Africans. I can refer to a fascinating book by Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia, in which he reflects on the paradoxical longing for the life in a black township during the 1970-80s – of his mother, other members of the older generation, and in some ways, his own. This is, of course, nostalgia not for apartheid, but for the time of more certainty, ‘order’ in the sense of community cohesion and respect for the elders, and solidarity across and along the generational lines. So, speaking about nostalgia, it is really important to determine what exactly one is nostalgic for and in what social and discursive context. In present-day South Africa, nostalgia might be a tactics of resisting, for instance, the disregard of the ethics of communality (ubuntu).
My classmate’s son just graduated from Johannesburg University. He notices that young black people inherited their parents’ memory regarding the fight for human rights during apartheid and they continue that fight not paying attention to the situation that has radically changed. In your opinion why do the black students perceive themselves, in contrary to reality, as the disfranchised people? Can we say that their post-memory is a wrong guide to the future?
This is a fascinating topic, also in theoretical terms (in that it prompts us to re-think the concept of postmemory, to an extent). I have written about this in the context of #RhodesMustFall and will write more. But my perspective is different from the one you have outlined. The anti-apartheid struggle of the past has often been framed as a struggle for civic/human rights, but it was also a broader struggle against colonialism and racism, and for social equality and justice. This struggle continues today, within the changed circumstances nationally and globally, but the problems are still the same – they have not been resolved by post-apartheid policies; some of them have even been exacerbated (spatial segregation, huge inequalities in education, in access to transport, sanitation, etc.). The fact that there has appeared a small black elite/ middle class does not resolve these structural conditions. Even if there is an emerging class of black professionals receiving decent salaries, they still have to deal with the ‘black debt’ – they are the first generation building new households and often take care of large extended families who are dependent on them. Many white South Africans, on the other hand, have privileged access to education and also often simply live off their inheritance – the wealth accumulated by the earlier generations. This is a situation of continuing coloniality.
Now, with regard to (post)memory, what we can observe is a search by the younger generation (of black South Africans) for a language to confront the structural inequalities inherited from colonial and apartheid eras, and the closest templates are found, of course, in the anti-apartheid repertoire. This repertoire might be misplaced in some ways, but may also be as relevant now, especially when memories of, for instance, the Soweto uprising highlight the lack of adequate education reform 25 years after the end of apartheid. The younger generation’s postmemory is an attempt to reach out to their parents and understand that generation’s experience, beyond blaming them for the failures of the transition (which also happens in public discourse). But also, unlike in the case of the Holocaust, the workings of apartheid have simply not ended, and so the generation of the ‘born frees’ experiences racialized conditions which can be traumatizing. So, we are dealing with a context of multiple and layered traumas and an intertwining of memory and postmemory.
What should an European researcher do for an adequate reconstruction of the South African black majority’s memory, memory of people, who for a long time had no possibility to articulate their cultural traumas. How can we manage not to prescribe the prejudices of our culture to an “exotic” society? Were there any cases in your practice when you realized that the European stereotypes regarding Africa do not correspond to reality?
This is, of course, a question you constantly ask yourself, as researcher of a postcolonial society. But what about studying ‘your own’ society: can you claim knowledge and understanding of all its groups and representatives? And what’s ‘your own’ anyway? I probably question myself when doing research on Russian literature or art even more than when writing about South Africa. Perhaps the experience of interacting with African or other non-Western contexts helps to relativize your ‘gaze’ onto the more familiar phenomena. At the same time, an ‘outside’ perspective, a fresh look, I believe, can sometimes provide unexpectedly relevant insights.
When discussing these issues with students, I often take the example from the book There Was This Goat by three South African authors – poet and journalist Antjie Krog, psychologist Kopano Ratele and a specialist in Xhosa oral culture Nosisi Mpolweni. It also has to do with memory. The puzzle they addressed was the TRC testimony of Mrs Konile, a mother of an anti-apartheid activist shot by the police in 1986. Compared to the speeches of other mothers and wives, her story seemed incomprehensible as it was full of locally specific references and did not fit into the formulaic narratives delivered at the TRC. A white researcher’s approach would be to consider this incomprehensibility as a sign of the woman’s trauma resulting from the loss of her son. In the course of their long-term interactions with Mrs Konile and her family and community, the researchers realized that what she was trying to convey was her devastation as a result of the loss of several family members, her poverty (a woman without a son/caretaker), and the hard work in the mines she had to carry out. If we can speak of a trauma in this case, we need to rethink the whole notion of trauma in accordance with the conditions, perceptions and the cultural background of the people whose perspectives we try to analyze. Or perhaps we should come up with an altogether different concept.
In my own research, I try and see what visions of trauma and memory the literary texts or works of visual art invoke, and which critical tools these might require – how we can develop such tools.
You are specializing in literature and art studies. How do the South African writers and artists reflect the memory about apartheid in their masterpieces and how strong does it impact on their creativity?
Memory is definitely one of the leading themes in contemporary South African literature and the arts. But it is not, or not only, a burden but a vehicle for new directions in public remembrance, I think. It is in literary and art productions that modes for current and future ways of remembering are developed, tested and crystallized. Regarding recent trends in memory in literature, I would say that the overwhelming focus on trauma during the 1990s and 2000s has now shifted towards modes of (post)memory that are more ‘activist’ and that foreground resilience and agency in recollecting the life of earlier generations. I’m currently writing an article about this dynamic. Another interesting tendency is what I call multi-layered memory: it might be too difficult to write about recent past (the past of the transitional period, for example, which produced its own traumas), and so the authors engage with more distant past but draw allusions to the contemporary times and create frameworks of ‘reading’ it.
In one of your works, you define the South African society as “the post-repressive” and trace some parallels with the post-socialist Central and East European countries. Can you provide some examples of common post-traumatic features of the Russian and South African memories?
Yes, this is what I’m exploring in my current research, which will occupy me for the next few years. I think there are similarities in the logic of dealing with the past of the apartheid and Soviet regimes, and especially with the ways the transformations from those regimes have taken place and in the ‘regimes’ of memory that have been established – what is being remembered, what has been ‘forgotten’; which memories are actualized and weigh more, and which are marginalized; which modes of remembering are being privileged and which become means of contestation.
Regarding the term ‘post-repressive’, I’ll cite an example from a recent text by Siona O’Connell. When she asks her father, who experienced forced removals, to reflect on the old photographs of the place and community that he had lost, he confesses that he still often looks over his shoulder, though he is not sure what he is afraid of. This sense of irrational fear and caution is something, I think, post-Soviet people even of younger generations can relate to.
But even though one can observe many intricate similarities, one has to be very cautious with comparisons. Such comparisons are necessarily asymmetrical (accounting for the selectivity of similarities) and reciprocal (not setting an ideal). Certainly, the ideologies of the Soviet/ socialist and apartheid regimes were very different, even opposing (there are more similarities between apartheid and Nazism). But the mechanisms of social engineering, censorship, and the methods of the secret police reveal similarities, and so do their effects.
Moreover, the narratives of ‘transitions’ in the 1980-90s and the practices of memory they involved were global (and thus similar across the world), but they were co-produced by social actors from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Southern Africa, Latin America, etc., so they had local roots that intertwined on a global scale. To disregard these intersections would be to adhere to the Cold War dichotomies that still dominate our visions of (historical) global interactions; to claim essential similarities of processes in these societies would also be a reductionism from Cold war times. In reality, the relations between South Africa and Russia have been full of mistranslations, based on superficial and false similarities (as Monica Popescu brilliantly shows in her research): the transition in South Africa was proclaiming ideals of social equality, while Russian ideologists were praising the market. But the results have been very similar. The transitions were propelled by social groups who were, unfortunately, negligent of the conditions and perspectives of the ‘ordinary’ people, and they were not considering questions of coloniality (in the societies and within their own approaches). This neglect of the ‘common’ and of issues of coloniality during the transitions is an unresolved problem with which South Africa (and Russia) are dealing with today, and are the points to which intellectuals, cultural producers and activists inevitably return. That’s what I study.
In your opinion, which transformations does the public historical discourse need in order to overcome the principal differentiations between the main South African communities of memory?
This is a daunting question – I usually think in terms of what is happening rather than what should happen, and I certainly don’t know how change can be achieved. Given the fragmentation of memory in South Africa, it would be good to see the practices of interrelating the memories of different communities and establishing dialogue between them, i.e. more intersectional and multi-directional memory. Certainly, school and university curricula need to be changed, as I mentioned already. The memory practices of black and coloured (especially working class and rural) communities should be brought to the forefront of public remembrance. Institutions of public memory should engage professionals working with decolonial practices, and all South Africans need to be educated in post- and decolonial forms of knowing and remembering. Hope at least some of this happens.
 For instance, Marshall, Sabine. Landscape of Memory: Commemorative Monuments, Memorials and Public Statuary in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
 Dlamini, Jacob. Native Nostalgia. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2009.
 Krog, Antjie, Kopano Ratele and Nosisi Mpolweni. There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.
 O’Connell, Siona. “Apartheid Afterlives: Imagining Freedom in the Aftermath of Racial Oppression in Cape Town, South Africa.” Third Text 32. 1 (2018): 32-45.
 Popescu, Monica. South African Literature Beyond the Cold War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.