Memories and Suffering After Apartheid Explored at Conference
Empathy and remembrance through difference after apartheid were explored by UKZN Oral Historian Professor Sean Field at the 2nd annual Conference on Memory Studies presented by the College of Humanities.
Field unpacked how memory studies can work through and beyond the conceptual and emotional legacies of apartheid. He was motivated by the need to conceptualise new ways to think, write and talk about human remembrance and suffering after apartheid.
‘Memory is not only about the past - both individual desires and collective aspirations for the future are key to understanding how memory cultures are sustained. Remembering necessarily leads to “reconciliation” while memory-work “after apartheid” requires working through various cultural and other differences and subjectivities.’
Field believes there is a need to develop a ‘critical use for empathy’ grounded in an awareness of ethical risks. ‘Instead of striving for “equality” and “rapport” in research, a critical empathy involves accepting - and interpreting - differences and disconnections as central to memory studies and understanding how people live with the “afterwards-ness” of apartheid.
‘In my practise as an Oral Historian, empathy is neither sympathy nor an emotion but imagining how the past was possibly experienced by others at specific moments in time and place. In other words, empathy is not about sharing feelings but “perspective shifting” and attempting to imagine historical scenes through “the eyes” of the other with a view to better understanding their past and present worlds,’ he added.
‘I am not suggesting researchers should feel nothing. But we need to distinguish between “imagining” and “feeling”, given that empathic imagination, especially when talking to survivors of violence, evokes feelings in us that will blur the imagination/feeling distinction. And researchers should not allow shared identities or political sympathies, to blind or mute their critical and empathic abilities.’
Field shared a personal example of a research dialogue framed through age, culture, race, gender and class. A working class woman, who was a Black Consciousness activist and writer, using isiXhosa and English was interviewed. The woman, who grew up in Cape Town’s oldest Black township, Langa and is still resident there today, spoke at length about her memories of life under apartheid. Field said there was a ‘lowering of the walls’ in the interview, and ‘some trust’ co-created.
‘This wise woman was teaching me and simultaneously revealing strength in how she spoke about her fragilities. But our dialogue was overshadowed by her memories of the systemic violence of apartheid and there were echoes of loss throughout.
‘The multiple losses of the past weigh heavily on/in Black South Africans who lived through apartheid. The loss of loved ones, of homes, of work opportunities, the loss of fantasies of a particular kind of future life, which cannot be rekindled in old age, even though democracy now exists in South Africa.’
He also pointed out that full comprehension of loss, pain and other feelings will ‘elude us but the possibilities for people to experience an “enlivening” within themselves by telling their stories to an empathic listener is significant.
‘Empathy might contribute to reconciliation - although that is not its primary purpose. Rather I think its benefit for memory studies will be in helping us understand how people remember and forget the irreconcilable legacies after apartheid, such as the evocative “after-words” that resist expression in any language or culture.’
He suggested that critical empathy together with holding dissonance in mind would assist people think beyond their own paradigms making them more receptive to the ‘belated’ legacies still to be comprehended in what people remember and convey.
‘Memory studies can support individuals and communities but we cannot provide “redemptive” solutions/cures for post-apartheid sufferings. There is no easy road in doing memory studies after violence, but one place to start, is to know our motives and ourselves more deeply, before we try to “bear the unbearable” that survivors “try to” convey to us.’