This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
As I read these fascinating essays, I was struck so forcibly about the importance of memory, of history, for both the individual and the community.
A loss of memory is sometimes no more than a slight annoyance – such as when we have forgotten where we parked the car. But it can be more serious. What would happen if a renowned neurosurgeon who had perfected a particular surgical procedure and could carry it out almost in his sleep were to forget what the next step happened to be? Normally he would remember what to do, but now his mind has become blank. And what happens if I forget who I am or those to whom I am related? My identity is linked very intimately to my memory, and relationships would be impossible if memory went – that is why Alzheimer's disease is such a horribly distressing ailment. To what extent is the patient still the same person as she was before the disease assailed her if she cannot recall significant individuals and events of her past?
Without memory it would be virtually impossible to learn: we could not learn from experience, because experience is something remembered. I would forever have to start at the beginning, not realising that a hot stove invariably burns the hand placed upon it. What I know is what I remember, and that helps to make me who I am.
Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a history. That is why people have often tried to destroy their enemies by destroying their histories, their memories, that which gives them an identity. That is why new immigrants who want to become naturalised citizens of a new motherland are asked to appropriate significant portions of its history, its collective memory.
I pray that our people and especially our children will, by reading this collection of essays, remember the very high price that has been paid to achieve our freedom. It is easy today to romanticise Robben Island as a tourist attraction and to forget the harsh conditions that many of our leaders experienced there. Who can forget the images in that photograph of Nelso Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others sitting in long rows carrying out a thoroughly pointless and soul-destroying task – breaking rocks into small pieces. The system was intent on breaking their spirits in this and other ways.
If we do forget, we will place a very low premium on our new and hard-won freedom. We might then fial to cherish it, nurture it and guard it as something utterly precious, bought at very great cost – not to be frittered away wantonly.
Many feared that those incarcerated on Robben Island might have gained reputation sof greatness whilst in prison that set us all up for huge disillusionment when we later discovered that our heroes had feet of clay. Mercifully, that has not happened, and we have evidence in these essays demonstrating that these were quite extraordinary persons, who in those very dark and sombre days, even before the Soweto Uprising of 1976, revealed indomitable spirits, holding on to shreds of hope and optimism when there was little objective evidence to justify it all. The essays invoke so many intriguing questions, both lare and small. How, for example, did the writers obtain so much detailed information about surveys and statistics?
These essays are worth reading too for those suffering from amnesia about how apartheid benefited some and caused untold and unnecessary suffering to the vast majority in our beautiful land.
Did George Santayana not declaim, 'Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it'? We need to know our past, to acknowledge it, to atone for it where appropriate, and so to resolve never to let the awful parts of it happen again.