Very little consensus on any of the key “memory” issues emerged from the two series. This diversity of view and of perspective is illustrated by the five reflection pieces reproduced here. At the end of the second series, the 2016 participants were invited to offer short written reflections inspired by their experience with the Mandela Dialogues.
I was a member of the convening teams for both series. For me the dialogue was also characterised by a striking convergence of views on what are, arguably, three deeper (and interlinked) questions. Firstly, across traditions, geographies and jurisdictions, there was a tangible impatience with democracy and a sense that it is failing the great majority of the human population (as well as most of the Earth’s other populations). For me this prompts a wondering about the connections between democracy and the forms of oppression which have emerged in the past two centuries. Secondly, participants expressed the view that formal instruments of transitional justice – from truth commissions to land claims courts, from reparation committees to amnesty hearings, from special pensions to affirmative action – are failing to dislodge deeply entrenched patterns of power, privilege and patronage. I wonder what the alternatives are. And thirdly, pessimism about the future ran deep. People are tired. They wonder about whether what they do – especially in the “memory sectors” – makes a difference. For me the challenge becomes, “Can we imagine a praxis ‘beyond hope’?”
We are a group of US-based memory workers – an archivist, a public historian, and a scholar of information studies (all of whose work significantly overlaps with each of those roles) – committed to using traces of the past to shape a more just future.1 The US is rarely thought of as a post-conflict society and participation in the Mandela Dialogues has been a rare opportunity to place American human rights violations within the context of state-sponsored violence internationally. However, we remain skeptical of the “post-conflict society” framing for the American context. For us, the “post” of “post-conflict” is a luxury that we cannot claim; it is “prematurely celebratory” to use Anne McClintock’s apt phrase regarding postcolonialism.2 Instead, we see the US as a conflict society that, most dangerously, does not acknowledge that such a conflict existed in the past, nor that it exists in the present, with grave consequences.
The United States was founded on and is framed by two human rights violations: the slaughter and displacement of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples. For centuries, extensions of these original sins have reinvented and manifested themselves with the same results: indigenous peoples have been removed from their land and depopulated without intervention, and people of African descent have been exploited for their labor, and treated as still enslaved – without the ability to fully enjoy citizenship as human beings. This legacy is made manifest in systems of white supremacy that dictate virtually every aspect of American society, including ongoing disparities in property ownership, wealth, educational levels, incarceration rates, and life expectancies. The recent media attention to the state-sponsored mass murder of black people by the police is one embodied aspect of this legacy that we can directly trace to the history of the enslavement of African peoples, Jim Crow, lynching and the history of white impunity for such violence.
Europeans commissioned nearly 39 000 slave ships to forcibly remove roughly 18-million Africans from their motherland to the “New World”, beginning in the 16th century and continuing through the 19th century, to serve as chattel slaves. Many historians believe roughly only 80% (including 20% children) survived the transatlantic trip. The Middle Passage forever changed the Atlantic ecosystem: predatory sharks followed slave ships and began moving dangerously close to African coasts and a new food source, African bodies.3 The slave economy set up the super-powerful allied countries, and now 200-million Africans live in the Diaspora. The United Nations says they are largely politically, economically and culturally oppressed and a recalibration is necessary to provide relief and restoration.
As memory workers, we believe that memory about these historic human rights violations is a crucial component of both justice work in the present and imagining more just futures. For us, memory work is not just about remembering the past, but about reckoning with it – that is, establishing facts, acknowledging, apologizing, stopping ongoing violence, and repairing the harm that was done through both material and immaterial forms of reparation.
One of the most important reflections we had from our participation in the Mandela Dialogues is paradoxically both the utility and futility of putting American atrocities against African American and indigenous people in international context. On the one hand, doing so acknowledges our shared global histories of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism and rightfully draws crucial attention to American domestic human rights violations, putting them on par with other such atrocities in the international arena. On the other hand, context and specificity matter. Sometimes we found it difficult to relate to our colleagues and to glean lessons from site visits in South Africa and Sri Lanka without more specific knowledge of the historical, cultural, social, and political contexts of their societies. We were particularly cautious about offering advice or suggestions forward for people whose contexts we did not fully understand. At the same time, we felt a visceral recognition of and uncanny familiarity with the racial disparity that we saw in Cape Town. For us, the lesson was to continually strive towards strategically leveraging our commonalities, while at the same time resisting being seduced by easy metanarratives of the success of post-conflict dialogue and healing. Such universal success stories flatten important differences and obfuscate the difficulty of our own work ahead.
The Mandela Dialogues also underscored for us the importance of holding action, critique, and vision in tandem. Action allows us to achieve material change. Critique ensures we do not become the metanarratives we aim to resist. Vision enables us to imagine otherwise. All three are essential for the work ahead. Yet we felt at times that the appropriate balance was absent from our dialogue experiences. In particular, we felt that constructive critique – of the goals of the dialogue, of the processes and methods employed, of each other’s practices and views – was sometimes missing. This was an important learning experience for us moving forward as we seek to build memory work processes that incorporate critique without inducing inaction or squashing imagination.
In fact, it is because of our commitment to imagination that we are called to enumerate the ways in which dialogue also serves as an instrument of democratic denial and an impediment to justice. Dialogue’s enshrinement within the US stems from a perverse misconception of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, a misconception that holds all voices within a dialogue are equally valid and valuable, even those of the most vile and violent variety. This perversion both obfuscates the raced, gendered, and classed inequality of those with the means to “speak” in a democracy and it implies that an embrace of that inequality in the form of dialogue is a pathway towards justice, a notion we find demonstrably disingenuous. The two original sins of the United States have yet to be cleansed not because they have yet to be dialogued but because they have yet to be “ceased”, and one of the reasons they have yet to be ceased is due to the dilemma that disingenuous dialogue – endemic to US democracy – further entrenches the legacies of those sins, including the inequality that begets them.
The limitations of dialogue in the pursuit of memory work for justice indicts democratic processes in the aggregate for their collective limitations in delivering justice to Indigenous and African peoples. Trials, tribunals, and truth commissions may well form part of the fabric to justice-seeking memory work but they must not constitute the whole. Reformational inputs cannot birth transformational outputs. In this sense, the denials of Indigenous genocides (past and present) and black enslavement (past and present) are not antithetical to American democracy but rather central to it. It follows that memory work aimed at justice for these communities must imagine new methods of memory work that extend beyond standard modes of memorialisation that receive state funding, university support, or capitalist endorsement. These new methods might involve approaches that are guerilla in nature yet grand in purpose. Democracy cannot repair what democracy damaged. We invoke the same question posed by Audre Lorde: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Our response, in the context of memory work for justice, mirrors Lorde’s response: “It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”4
Wide are the changes needed to fulfill the promise of this country’s creed, and in the context of unresolved and ongoing trauma, that chasm commands memory work to become justice work, for a scar cannot take shape on the flesh where the wound still flows red with blood. At stake are not only the memories of ancestors kidnapped, raped, tortured, and killed but also the futures of children not yet born who may face a familiar fate. One cannot memorialise that which is present and that which is yet to come, a reality that reinforces the requirement that memory work in these contexts becomes bullets for liberation. Memory work of this sort might centre restitution of confiscated lands, reparation for actual and potential losses, and reconciliation within and between communities. To engage in memory work within ongoing conflicts is to step in the line of fire with a vest and a vision to advocate for justice over peace and for truth over reconciliation.
In our own work, we have seen the ways in which people, movements, and objects that were considered to be radical and/or dangerous in their own presents become safe with time as they are memorialised, archived, and lionised. We caution against such crystallisation and instead are compelled by the energies of infinite and infinitely nuanced competing, contradictory, and co-existing micro-narratives.
The past was never singular, nor will the future be. In order to generate these futures, memory work should be dangerous. It should seek not only to acknowledge past trauma, but to repair it. It should aim to upend hierarchies of power, to distribute resources more equitably, to enable complex forms of self-representation, and to restore the humanity of those for whom it has been denied.
The Mandela Dialogues inspired us to begin forging a liberation theology for memory work, which we envision as an ethics of practice fundamentally dedicated to animating traces of the past for social justice activism in the present and to envision and enact radically just futures. This will look different in different contexts building towards different futures. In our immediate context, in the wake of a disastrous American election, this means using our skills as archivists, public historians, and academics to end the state-sponsored murder and mass incarceration of Black people and the continued genocide and displacement of Indigenous peoples, to dismantle systems of white supremacy, to actively resist the oppression of the most vulnerable amongst us, and to re-envision forms of justice that repair and restore rather than violate and harm individuals and communities.
This work is risky and messy and arduous, but the alternative is untenable; our futures depend on it.
1 We are indebted to Verne Harris’s construction of “memory for justice” and for his insistence on using memory work as a tool for liberation.
2 Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term Post-Colonialism,” Social Text, No. 31/32, Third World and Post-Colonial Issues (1992): 87.
3 Marcus Rediker, “History From Below the Water Line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade,” Atlantic Studies, (2008), 5:2: 285-297.
4 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984): 111-112.
About the authors
Doria D Johnson identifies as a cisgendered black woman born and living in America, raised in working class suburbia, currently occupied as an activist, abolitionist, and a PhD Candidate in History.
Jarrett M Drake identifies as a cisgendered, heterosexual black man raised in a middle-class household within Gary, Indiana, and is now an archivist.
Michelle Caswell identifies as a cisgendered white Jewish American woman who grew up working class in the city of Chicago and is now a scholar of information studies.
2016 is over, a year of great tension in the world, seeing the further rise of nationalist and xenophobic discourses, deep political changes in the main world powers, a terrible humanitarian crisis in Syria and the signing of a historic peace agreement in Colombia. 2016 has shaken the world and left us with quite a few questions about the concepts of community and unity. The year that begins brings important challenges in terms of security, economics and politics. For those of us who work along the line of memory, human rights and peace construction, it will be an interesting year to evaluate processes of collective memory. We will also have the opportunity to continue trying to understand the complex human dynamics that perpetuate Segregation and generate conflicts at different levels.
Precisely the question about the role of memory work and the creation of safe, inclusive and integrating spaces was the main topic in the second Mandela Dialogues on memory work, a process held between June and November 2016, which convened 25 professionals from 10 different nationalities in two countries in post-conflict scenarios: South Africa and Sri Lanka.
The question of how to build a Safe Space requires recognition that in a context of conflict the social relationship dynamics are profoundly disrupted. The fracture of the social fabric results in a tense environment that suggests great challenges in reconciliation and post-conflict processes. How to bring victims and perpetrators together in the same scenario without this entailing a traumatic and re-victimizing process? Furthermore, how to generate processes of positive coexistence for both of them?
The lesson left by the Mandela Dialogues (and various processes of reconciliation in the world) is the need for recognition and responsibility by the various actors involved in the conflict, the existence of a process of moral and material reparation and support along the personal path of overcoming traumas, that aims at the transformation of discourses of hatred and revenge into ones of justice and not repetition. It is not a matter of modifying the narrative of hatred with one of justification, on the contrary, it is a matter of providing arguments that generate rejection of unjust or violent situations and promotion of a community sense, one where people understand the importance of thinking and developing themselves as part of a collective.
Placing the concept of safe space within reconciliation processes is essential. For the interaction and recognition of “the other”, the generation of dialogue, communication and encounter, however, it is necessary to understand the moment and the existing will to generate and promote these spaces. After the Mandela Dialogues experience I can think of three different levels of reconciliation that fit the purpose and function of a safe space: coexistence, “convivence” and communion.
Coexistence demands the resignation of a desire for revenge and promotes a coexistence that recognizes “the other” as equal. It is here that we can locate the politics of reconciliation, truth and justice, which prepares the contexts for a nation or society to begin on the path of reparation and recognition of an enemy. Here, a safe space will be one which invites the transformation of imaginaries and reckoning with the past from a perspective of non-repetition with an important component of justice.
At a second level, there is reconciliation for “convivence”, a level that requires interaction and joint daily work, as well as a higher levels of will and conscience. Here a safe space responds to the need for encounter and dialogue, and for the overcoming of pain and hatred.
Finally, we could highlight a safe space within a context of reconciliation by communion, a level at which a fundamental will to re-establish community relations is assumed (this does not mean generating a friendly relationship necessarily, but, closeness based on respect and cooperation).
These three levels of reconciliation are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they coexist and work hand in hand. Safe spaces must be used to promote particular dialogues and actions that do not impose on others but which invite communities in a creative way to get involved.
The Mandela Dialogues experience left me with different questions about long-term responsibility in processes of ending a conflict; the importance of traditional and restorative justice; the construction of multiple memories; and the heroic values that may be negative in the future. The construction of a safe space is not an easy task. In macro terms, it requires will, clarity and less utopias, and it requires guided actions to strengthen the capacity for constructive responses to violent situations with a notion of responsibility and consensus.
The challenges are many: engage and sensitize communities, generate critical awareness and transformative will, promote change-generating memories and intergenerational dialogues that recognise history but avoid the inheritance of hatred and prejudice.
2017 for Colombia, my country, begins with the hope of ending a conflict of more than 50 years, with the possibility of having new discussions and strengthening existing ones, but it is also a year of learning and conscious reflection on what the memory that we are building today will mean in the future.
Safe spaces demand creativity, will and courage.
About the author
David Hernández Torres is a Colombian social communicator focused on communication for development and advertising. Currently he is an assessor of communications in social innovation and reconciliation projects.
Memory is pivotal to restorative justice and the process of dealing with the past. Memorialising is one certain path to uncover the past and fortify efforts towards closure. “Memory work” is irretrievably linked to “transitional justice”, a comparatively contemporary field that addresses and deals with massive human rights violations. Transitional justice encompasses three forms of grappling with injustice: retributive, restorative and reparative. The Durban Declaration of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, stressed emphatically “that remembering the crimes or wrongs of the past, wherever and whenever they occurred, unequivocally condemning its racist tragedies and telling the truth about history are essential elements for international reconciliation and the creation of societies based on justice, equality and solidarity.”1 Memory work also refers to wider multiple “processes and activities that are the responsibility of all sectors of a polity and society.”2 This aspect of our consciously lived experience is what I choose to work on in Sri Lanka, which has a large Buddhist majority. Buddha taught that, “Hatred does not cease through hatred, but through love alone they cease.”
Memorialising is essential for restorative justice. I am guided by Martha Minow, who observes: “In contrast to legal prosecution, restorative justice seeks to repair the injustice, to make up for it, and to effect corrective changes in the record, in relationships, and in future behaviour. It emphasises the humanity of both offenders and victims. It seeks repair of social connections and peace rather than retribution against the offenders. Building connections and enhancing communication between perpetrators and those they victimised, and forging ties across the community, take precedence over punishment or law enforcement. Reliving memory helps the collective unconscious of our society to regret, repent and avoid traumatic events that undermined morality, violated norms of behaviour and abandoned social responsibility.”3
Archives, according to Schwartz and Cook (2002), “are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is exchanged, examined and established”.4 Hence, the kind of memory work I wish to be involved in is related to empowering communities through memory, archives and records. The past is exposed and made accessible for open discussion with transparency and a search for accountability. The archival records assembled will serve not as a repository of mere data but as a living mechanism that provokes collective memory – how we saw ourselves as individuals, groups and a society in the hope that retrospective honest appraisal will mark the mileposts for a collective future.
Sri Lanka is passing through a phase of hesitant reconciliation after a 30-year civil war, which was followed by a harsh period of triumphalism that further alienated a vanquished minority. It is still trapped in a time warp in which past events are denied by some and asserted by others. The new government that assumed office promising good governance and national reconciliation has enacted legislative remedies that still need meaningful application on the ground. Sri Lanka is yet to create a space that allows perpetrators and victims, winners and losers, to reckon with their grievances.
The new administration has the dual task of achieving national reconciliation and political consolidation of its electoral base that is challenged by a formidable coalition bent on provoking xenophobic hysteria among the island’s majority Sinhala Buddhists.
My current archival work is a direct consequence of my participation in the Mandela Dialogues this year. I am convinced that the advantages accruing from this work can help transform societies from the uneasy absence of physical conflict to a true and resilient peace and a plural social order that restores individual human dignity to all. In Sri Lankan society, there is a dominant tendency to suppress memory, to move on and ‘to put the past behind us. Through the memory paradigm, I will endeavour to overcome this obstacle by promoting a “never again” mind frame in the collective unconscious of civil society.
My participation in the Mandela Dialogues made me reflect deeply on the need for memory work in a conflict-torn country where the fissures remain despite the absence of armed conflict. If we had memorialized the 1983 pogrom of the Tamil minority, it would have served to jolt the memory of the majority to pay heed to the roots of the conflict. My family must be one of the rare Muslim families to have been affected, and evicted, in 1983. It is not as if to say that the Muslims were not targets in subsequent years ...
Today, I know that racial prejudice and racial profiling requires sustenance. What is disturbing is the dismissive attitude of many to deflect the issues by making out that the pogrom of 1983 was an isolated aberration of a few miscreants. It is indeed absolutely imperative that we archive the horrors of the pogrom – that alone will help the majority to confront a terrible past instead of relying on the rhetoric of stamping out separatist terrorism.
The Mandela Dialogues process meant a lot to me also in terms of understanding the pros and cons of memory work and the deeper meaning of a healing process that involves memory work. What it means for people to be heard, to be allowed to tell their stories, to have someone listen to them. Creating such safe space is important for sustaining peace.
This experience gave me deep insights into how important it is to create safe space. How important it is to have space for trauma to be expressed and for taking small steps towards creating space for new friendships, for changing our attitudes, engaging our families, making space for women to share their traumas. Space to explore the roles and stories of mothers and the younger generation of activists. Space to consider how the new generation suffers from the consequences of the many layers of violence it has internalised. The experience also helped me to study events from the point of view of the victims, the oppressed, the dispossessed. And to ask where I belong.
This process brought to me personally lessons in patience and perseverance – not to expect speedy results, but to wait assuredly for the better. As much as it immensely inspired me, it also challenged me. The deep sharing exercises brought close to me a network of beautiful human beings from all over the world, doing meaningful transitional justice and memory work. They helped peel off layers, showed our vulnerability and taught us the fundamentals of a long journey ahead to fuel and unload our burdens and traumas, together as a collective, independent of the Mandela Dialogues organisers’ goals. It was an immensely fulfilling experience, with the promise of future work together at home and globally.
Thoughts and insights gained through participation in the Mandela Dialogues have also encouraged me to enliven my deep-seated memories of a past that we do not wish to revisit but are bold enough to remember. I have already started a blog memorialising the 1983 pogrom in Sri Lanka to tap into the collective memories of all ethnic communities and to work against a recurrence of such a violent episode in the future. I am in the process of running the blog, inviting contributions of memorabilia from those living in Sri Lanka and outside the country to carry it out as a movement that holds the potential for gathering steam in the process where people who were affected and their generations can link up in solidarity and build future resilient communities against violence.
1 Available at <http://www.un.org/WCAR/durban.pdf>. Accessed on 23, 12, 2016.
2 Chandre Gould and Verne Harris, “Memory for Justice,” Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2014.
3 Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon, 1998): 91-92.
4 Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, Archival Science 2: 1–19.
About the author
Minna Thaheer is a researcher, policy advisor and archivist working on post-conflict reconciliation, peace and development. She is currently Consultant, World Bank Group, Sri Lanka.
In 2016 the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Global Leadership Academy of the German Development Agency (GIZ) held two six-day dialogues with memory workers from nine countries. This was the second series of meetings of this kind, the first having taken place in 2013 and 2014.
Behind the first series lay a discomfort with the growing orthodoxy that past human rights violations (in conflict or war or through oppressive governance) should be dealt with through formal mechanisms, such as truth commissions. The discomfort gave rise to a range of questions aimed at generating new thinking about how to do memory work that is liberatory. These questions included:
The second series drew from the first and continued the “how” questions, but this time with a much narrower focus, asking: how do we create spaces safe enough for former enemies to engage one another (peacefully) in and how should we be doing memory work with new generations that did not directly experience the harms of the past?
As a participant and documenter of the first series, and a facilitator of the second, the experience has prompted me to a deeper questioning both of the kind of memory work I have been engaged in myself, and of the premises of these two series. Perhaps, I feel, we should not be asking “how?” but return to the much earlier questions of why we do memory work.
The most pressing question for me at the end of the meetings of the second series of dialogues is: does reminding ourselves of atrocity make us more or less likely to act peacefully and altruistically in the future? I feel a strong need to return to questions about what we are trying to achieve when we draw attention to past harms, and how best we can do that.
On one hand there is a very strong, and simplistic, dogma that runs through much of the memory work done in our own country and elsewhere. That is: if we forget the harms of the past we are more likely to repeat the violations we have experienced.
The opening quote of the general report of the Colombian Historical Memory Group of the National Commission on Reparation and Reconciliation: Basta Ya! Colombia: Memories of war and dignity1 are the words of Tzvetan Todorov: “Evil suffered should be inscribed in the collective memory to give the future another chance.” Here quite clearly is an injunction to remember suffering and evil – not only to remember, but to burn it into the collective memory. Forgetting, from this perspective, is to deny the future a chance. A chance at what, we are left to wonder. But the assumption is that this must refer to a chance for greater social justice, more peace and less harm.
Later in the report is a powerful quote from an inhabitant of Trujillo, Valle de Cauca, who says:
“If one does not speak, does not write and does not tell the stories, one forgets and little by little it gets covered by fear. People who saw the dead body begin to forget and are afraid to speak, so that we wind up carrying around a darkness that has lasted for years and that nobody talks about [...] And since nobody talks about what happened, nothing has happened. So, if nothing has happened, then we continue to live as if nothing has happened.”
Here we catch a glimpse of another reason to remember – if we don’t, if we cover our hurt with silence, we cannot heal. We cannot heal if we do not acknowledge and understand our pain. This is a concern that has been expressed clearly in the work of Sabine Bode, a German journalist who has been working to break the silence of the war children and grandchildren, the descendants of Nazi supporters. Sabine, who participated in the first Mandela Dialogues series, shows through sensitively told human stories how silence within families about past harms committed – particularly the families that carry the guilt of having not suffered, or having been members of the Nazi party or having been civil servants – leads to all manner of emotional ills in future generations:
“We talk about a time in Western Germany when research and education concentrated on victims and perpetrators of the Nazi regime, a process started in the seventies. To be concerned with the Germans as victims was no longer mainstream. Not a taboo but not welcomed. There were strong efforts for coming to terms with the past – leaving behind an era when most Germans assured ‘We did not know anything’ and ’We were all victims’, no matter how strongly they had been involved in Hitler Germany.
But refusing guilt and shame did not end the case. The feelings changed over to the following generation. This assumed guilt was very common in Germany. The crucial burden of the war children was not the violence of war but the holocaust. Shame and the feeling of being guilty blocked the access to their own trauma and mental disorders. Ninety percent of persons I contacted did not want to reflect on the after-effect of war events. (From Sabine Bode’s autobiography for the Mandela Dialogues)
So, if the intention behind memory work is to prevent past harms from being repeated and to encourage speaking and sharing so that experiences of the past are not silenced and hidden, the challenge is whether we can do this without creating new silences, solidifying false binaries (such as good and evil; victim and perpetrator) and thereby enabling righteous victims and so too the opportunity for new harms.
Another way of putting this could be to consider Lionel Trilling’s statement that, “It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us more humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it.”2 This is the shadow side of memory work, and I believe the dilemma that those of us who assume the mantle of memory work have to consider, especially when we propose to act on behalf of people identified as victims and who are unable to speak themselves. We need to ask whether the kind of remembering we need to do is a direct remembering of harmful deeds and heroic deeds. I have come to suspect not.
These questions came to the fore in a particular way during the dialogue process. The first six-day meeting took place in Cape Town. Like many of the participants, I have had a close, personal and political relationship with events in my country over the past 25 years or more. Over this time much of my work has related to violence, placing attention where violence is happening; and always with a view to preventing more violence, reducing the intensity of violence and working towards justice for those affected by violence.
This kind of orientation requires of me a self-awareness that as much as I might abhor violence, I am also drawn to it. The place where violence is taking place often seems like the most important place to be. I am also compelled to understand what allows us as individuals, states and societies to engage in violence and to examine the links between our individual, personal experiences as children and growing adults, and the later use of violence in our private and collective lives.
The context of the Mandela Dialogues offered me new insights into how activists, in very different settings, experience the power of violence and the unconscious way in which it calls us, and may even bind us in addiction.
In Cape Town we had the opportunity to experience memory work first-hand through immersive experiences. There were two such experiences that differed in almost every respect. During the one, participants experienced the sadness and tragedy of a community destroyed and then moved into a powerful, difficult and polarised meeting with young people who are justifiably angry and demanding social change.
The second was a slower, gentle process of inter-generational, inter-cultural storytelling. The young people involved in this process had rejected the lifestyle of hard drinking and hard living of many of their peers – and for the young men this was a difficult and sometime dangerous choice because they were rejecting the masculinity championed by many of their peers. That is what they told us anyway. The older people had all endured terrible hardship and tragedy in their lives. Yet despite our apparent differences of privilege or the lack thereof – we were joined across countries, continents and generations by our shared humanity, by humour and by our stories. Those who took part in this experience came back feeling invigorated, inspired, having felt generosity, warmth, acceptance and love.
Yet, when we came together again as the larger group the collective discussions that followed from our experiences were focused on the first immersion. It felt as though speaking about the warmth and love we had experienced was out of place, it was drowned out by the urgency of anger and violence and the need to respond and engage with it. In short, a language of peace was silenced.
Silencing came up several times during our meeting. Sometimes very passionately and with overwhelming emotion. It seemed that for several of the people in the group the closeness to pain, anger and violence, in combination with a powerful empathy for those victimised by systems beyond their control, meant that they needed to find ways to create an “other” within the group: “An other” that could stand for those seen to be in opposition to themselves. The emotions that were expressed included anger, rejection and frustration.
This experience opened my eyes to how essentially (“in essence”) violence can overwhelm, infiltrate and dominate. Also how easily it can distract us from anything else and transform our relationships and engagements with others.
To return then to the question that we started with – why do memory work? It would appear that within the very broad sphere that is termed memory work, especially the kind of memory work that takes place outside of the constraints of formal process (such as truth commissions), those drawn to continue the work of preventing forgetting, in the name of peace, are mostly themselves affected directly by the harms that have been experienced. We carry that trauma, whether directly or vicariously into our work. And unresolved, unrecognised, it seeps into our interactions with others in ways that can be harmful and may even inhibit our ability to imagine alternative futures. Taking care of ourselves, being aware of our own trauma and biases, is essential, I believe, to what may be a liberatory memory work.
I am challenged to re-imagine the kind of memory work I want to do. This memory work should prompt questioning, exploration and the telling of new stories. It should not allow for easy, false binaries but let in multiple voices and interpretations. In working with young generations it should inspire, encourage imagination and listen actively and with care to new experiences, stories, fears and dreams. It should be light and should encourage and enable connection, kindness and empathy and be the opposite of that which enabled past harms.
1 Historical Memory Group, Basta Ya! Colombia: Memories of war and dignity, General Report, National Commission on Reparation and Reconciliation, 2016. Available at http://centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informes2016/basta- ya-ingles/BASTA-YA-ingles.pdf, last accessed 25 November 2016.
2 Quoted in Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, 2001, New York: WW Norton and Company: 7.
About the author
Chandre Gould is a researcher and activist who has been involved in memory work projects since the 1990s. She is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies and a research associate at the Durban University of Technology and the University of Exeter.
As humankind has been evolving in its understanding of the complexity of conflicts, memory work has been gaining more and more relevance as an integral part of transition for post-conflict societies. Memory gains importance when it is linked to reparation and reconciliation – and for that there needs to be an understanding of what happened.
As memory workers we see the process of constructing memory precisely as a process, one which has seen substantial methodological contributions in the past 30 years – so that the State of the Art in memory work is constantly being updated. However, the core of my reflection is that although we understand memory as a process, we don’t understand our target constituencies as people who are undergoing processes themselves.
We produce memory work today informed by very important questions such as: how will we narrate the conflict to today’s kids and to future generations? How do we create a common narrative that joins former perpetrators and victims in a new reconciliation perspective? We see our constituencies as constant, victims as victims, perpetrators as perpetrators, kids as kids, and so on, but we don’t think of what will happen when they change in nature or don’t identify themselves as such anymore: will those narratives still work? Will they be enough?
Although we talk about processes like reconciliation as long-term dynamics that can take many generations to consolidate or actually never fully take place, we tend to see memory work as something more short-term. We make a great effort during a transition period, to construct memory, to gather sources, narratives, and other elements ... BUT TO DO IT NOW. Therefore, we have specific interests around what we want to set as the priority, what narratives will be more helpful for what we intend, what information we want or need to categorize and gather. And consequently we don’t think about gathering all we can, even if we don’t know what to do with such material, and let that be evidence and sources for future generations to build upon and update the memory work to the needs of their time.
We can create a narrative for today’s kids, but these kids will grow and become teenagers then adults and will want different forms and modes of feedback than today’s teenagers or adults. Because their processes were different, because they had a narrative that others at their age didn’t have, when they become teenagers and adults their needs for understanding and explanations of what happened will be different, the current available resources might not be sufficient or appropriate. What I am saying is that we tend to see memory work as a process that takes place as a part of a transition but we fail to see that it has to become an ongoing process of constant upgrading and construction, where we as the memory workers at the time must gather narratives and other resources that might be constructive for the time but which we might not know what to do with or how to process at the time. Especially because many of those sources, stories, testimonies and other resources might not be available anymore after some years, and then we will have lost the opportunity to gather them for others in the future to use them and construct new processes based on that.
We tend to foster dialogues now without seeing that they might enlighten future dialogues, that dialogues can be across generations and time, and that it is our responsibility to gather all the resources for those processes to take place, and allow others to learn lessons from the processes and material we gather. Reconciliation takes time, but so also does memory, and it will take generations too, sometimes, to have such discussions and encounters. So: how to provide them all with tools to nurture their dialogues based on memory? How to make such an inclusive gathering of material that minimises our imprint on it and the dangers of polarising future memory work and reflections?
That is why as memory workers we need to see our work as a tool of long duration, where all narratives have validity, where all elements can eventually be useful, where technical memory work has to find a way of staying away from political polarizations, and where methodological framing that excludes elements that can be useful in the future is avoided. How many tools, evidence and other elements have been lost because for someone they were irrelevant at the time? How many gaps have we had to fill because we didn’t have a comprehensive context of the situations, of how life was, of the beliefs, of the narratives, etc, and then we end up inferring in order to construct our visions of past situations and understandings of our present?
Building bridges across time and people means preparing bricks for paths and walkers we have not yet foreseen.
About the author
Dylan Herrera is a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) practitioner who has been working with excombatants and host communities and advising governments in Colombia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo.