Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela File picture: Jürgen Scheere/FSU/ANA Archives

Several South African pro-Palestine solidarity groups this week called for the withdrawal of the participation of Israeli academics at a conference to be held at the University of Stellenbosch from 5-9 December ("Activists call for Israeli academics to withdraw from Stellenbosch conference").

The aim of conference entitled “Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma” is to deepen understanding of trans-generational trauma, and develop strategies to deal with the repercussions of genocide, colonial oppression, and mass violence.

The conference committee is chaired by author and scholar, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and the 4-day gathering features several prominent academics and activists, including Achille Mbembe, Homi Bhaba, Albie Sachs, Zackie Achmat and Lindiwe Hani. The closing ceremony will celebrate 20 years of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Here Gobodo-Madikizela responds to Roshan Dadoo from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and others.

Dear Roshan, Friends and Colleagues,

Conference at Stellenbosch University on “Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma”.

First, please note that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is not the main funder of the conference. The grant that I received from Mellon supports post-graduate students’ work and post-doctoral research. The only event for which we have used Mellon funds is a pre-conference workshop/symposium that is organised by two of our post-doctoral fellows.

Please bear with me as I tell the story behind this conference, what inspired it - and other thoughts that are relevant to your statement to the organisers, speakers, sponsors and participants of the conference.

In the closing weeks of South Africa’s democratic parliament in February 1999, Nelson Mandela led the debate in parliament on the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which he received twenty years last month in October 1998. The parliamentary response to the issues raised by the TRC report, Mandela said, was the start of a national debate that required that South Africans “remain seized with the matters that the TRC process brought to the fore.” 

Engaging with these issues, however, would “require a process of many years that calls on the contributions of religious leaders, poets and artists as much as those of politicians, academics and investigators.” For Mandela this was a “the historic responsibility” that all South Africans should embrace, because our transition to democracy requires nothing less than “the dismantling of apartheid and the measures that reinforced it. It requires that we overcome the consequences of that inhuman system which live on in our attitudes towards one another and in the poverty and inequality that affects the lives of millions.”

Twenty years after Mandela received the TRC report, and almost twenty-five years after we cast our first votes for democracy, the hope that was envisioned then, and the racial reconciliation that these historical moments of 1994 and 1998 promised are only barely visible.

Every day we drive to work through Kalk Bay, Muizenberg and past Khayelitsha, we witness the increasing number of squatter homes, fast encroaching toward the first vineyard on the Stellenbosch wine route. Sometimes I stop and have conversations with the young people who are mainly the ones building these homes; some of them are the same age as undergraduate students at our universities, and they are eager to go to university. 

Some of them will no doubt be awarded free, first year tertiary education. I have met students whose homes are built with their own hands on arid land during my tenure at various universities: the University of Cape Town, the University of the Free State, and Stellenbosch University.

What has struck me the most in my encounters with black students in previously white institutions is how racial integration at these universities has created the potential for another problem: “the proximity problem.” For, while many black students know that they are less privileged than their white counterparts, the everyday proximity with white students heightens this awareness and makes them realise just how unequal their worlds are. This problem has many layers that I cannot get into here, and it has led to major consequences in our higher education institutions. 

For instance, some of these students have to leave home at the break of dawn to catch more than one form of transport before reaching university. They may not be able to take full advantage of resources such as access to the library and to online resources, because they have to leave before the last train or taxi to their homes. They may have the capacity for excellence, and access to tertiary education through the free education scheme, but may still be without the means to achieve their full potential. 

This begs the question: what is equal opportunity to higher education? The answer is an equal opportunity to succeed: addressing the need to access higher education on the one hand, and the structures that may sustain inequality on the other.

Every day I drive past the place that these young people call home, and especially now as many of us prepare to go to our various vacation destinations, I am reminded of words that continue to sit with me - and to evoke Mandela again: As we reached out across the divisions of centuries to establish democracy, we need now to work together in all our diversity, including the diversity of our experience and recollection of our history, to overcome the divisions themselves and eradicate their consequences.

“Twenty years” and “Twenty five years” are the lives of a whole generation who face dehumanized and humiliated living conditions. The violence of the circumstances of their lives may not be the spectacular, dramatic and the physical brutality of the stories recounted in the TRC report that Mandela received, although many, especially women, bear physical scars; however, the violence of betrayal of hope has left invisible scars. 

This is the work we are concerned with in the Historical Trauma and Transformation research initiative at Stellenbosch University, for which I am professor and Research Chair. The conference we are organising is an attempt to connect the South African story of transgenerational wounding with many other countries - “Black Pain” is a metaphor for the suffering of the oppressed.

For this reason, the oppression of Palestinian people is always on our minds when organising these conferences, and in the past (this is our fourth conference) we have had Palestinian delegates who managed, through difficult encounters with visa problems, to find their way to attend our conferences.
Israeli scholars who have participated in our conferences have always been those involved in work that “speaks truth to power”- as the title of an Israeli speaker at the conference suggests.

She has been engaged in teaching about the role of film in confronting the silence about the actions of soldiers involved in the war against Palestinians. The films she works with were condemned by the Minister of Culture, who referred to these productions as an "anti-Israeli narrative” that spreads “lies in the form of art.” He condemned the artists for what he termed the “outrageous ... incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world.” 

It is therefore not surprising that when this colleague organised teaching and panel discussions around these films, she was vilified, and verbally attacked, not least by some students.

Our Israeli colleague’s work - on speaking truth to power through film - is very much the kind of contribution that we had in mind for the “light and shadow” side of historical trauma, art as visual conscience of society, to appropriate Mandela and Chilean scholar Ariel Dorfman.

We were encouraged by the PACBI’s response last month to the disciplinary action against a faculty staff at Michigan University that “[e]ducators who bravely act on principle should be championed, not punished.” We applied this injunction - some may say over-eagerly - as part of our reflection on the question of how best to respond.

None of the Israeli participants we invited to speak at the conference represents the position of the state of Israel against Palestinians. Nor do they represent an “institutional” position.

On the contrary, they are academics who have been engaged in research and interventions that have involved disrupting the Israel narrative, nurturing a group of young students who are moving in fields that are beginning to challenge the status quo.

The conditions under which Palestinians live are worse than apartheid. Some say the continuing dehumanization of millions of South Africans who suffer the everyday conditions of humiliation, and the betrayal of hope in the face of corruption that defies imagination is violence that is worse than apartheid. What we are witnessing in our countries is beyond apartheid - I hope for an opportunity to meet with you Roshan.

Warmest regards,

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.