Memory of the Present

Dominant culture in South Africa benignly recall slavery as part of a vaguely picturesque past that left us with beautiful colonial houses, award-winning wines and tourism.

The Cape Town Waterfront, a private shopping mall, entertainment complex and residential community.

Every time I visit the prison, I try to notice as much as possible. The attitude of each of the guards I meet as I go through the different levels of security, the names on the form that show how many visitors arrived before us, the words on the faded notices – printed and handwritten – along the way, how much sky shows between the windows and bars and walls, the sound of buzzing that releases the heavy steel gate and its banging behind us so the guards can hear it click shut, the posture of the inmates’ bodies in the big room where we all sit, everything controlled and everything subtly revealing.

This is what I think about on December 1st these days. Though many of us do not mark the day, on December 1st, 182 years ago the institution of slavery was abolished in the colonies that made up South Africa.

Slavery was a prison the size of the world.

It made us not human while building a definition of the human out of those who enslaved us. As a result, to be human was to be not us. And the brutality that exclusion unleashed against us made the world we still live in today.

In the past we tried to forget slavery just to abolish the enormity of its violence against us. But, as Audre Lorde said in another place of slavery and about another kind of silence, forgetting does not protect us.

So we must urgently remember. Slavery and its legacy is a deep well, and we climb out of its steep walls slowly. Enslaved people built the economy of the early South African colonies. This is so indisputable that dominant culture can benignly afford to recall slavery as part of a vaguely picturesque past that left us with beautiful colonial houses, award-winning wines and tourism. A form of forgetting, in other words.

But on every one of those estates, the slave bells and the slave quarters summon a hidden history like bones protruding from the ground. In reality, slaves brought from East Africa, India and South East Asia formed the majority of the population of the Cape Colony and every aspect of colonial society relied on the daily brutality of those stolen bodies and their stolen labour. The Slave Lodge in central Cape Town, now a haunting museum of slavery, was also the main brothel of Cape Town. To be enslaved was to be treated with daily, intimate and public violence for 176 years.

The memory of that violence hovers over us like a threat and yet is also used against us in a cruel sleight of hand as evidence of our inhumanity, the way women are accused of being responsible for the sexual violence against them. The legacy of slavery is in the normalization of violence against certain people, as is clear in our rates of sexual violence, poverty, unemployment and incarceration. For whom are such figures normal, inconsequential, no national crisis?

So that is why we need to take hold of this past. But is remembering apartheid 22 years after the transition is not enough?  Yes, apartheid is more than enough, but apartheid took its grammar, logic and laws, like the pass system, from slavery and the colonial period.

Two of the men across two generations in my family have been in prison, that I know of. Some things you don’t speak about. I think of them when I’m signing in to visit another woman’s son. Apartheid’s focused violence, poor schooling, poverty, the moral violence of patriarchy and the availability of drugs seemed to make their path to jail almost inevitable, and the shame caused the rest of us to draw our boys and girls closer, protect them more, and watch the world continue as it does. African American scholars who study the aftermath of slavery in the US argue that the institutions of state that were built by a slave-holding society adapted to abolition as simply new conditions for forced labour. They call this the Prison-Industrial Complex and the School-to-Prison pipeline, which today delivers more Black men to prison than higher education. They are calling for a new abolition.

They say that clanging sound reverberating around us is the world still shaped like a prison.

Further Reading

Just Us for Palestine

Africa Is a Country is proud to present a partnership with the popular South African podcast Just Us Under a Tree. On this episode, the Just Us crew analyze South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ.