What is the meaning and value of naming slums or informal settlements after struggle icons? asks the writer. Picture: Phando Jikelo/ANA Pictures
One hundred and five years since the birth of the ANC, we seem obsessed by a cult of memory. Possessed by nostalgia for an age now irrevocably past, we revere its relics and indulge in commemorations and memorialisations that are supposed to keep it alive. A new geographical name here, another there, a new memorial lecture, a new foundation, somewhere in Mzansi. And our calendar is full of memorial days for the remarkable events of the past.

There is nothing natural about this compulsive concern for the past, which cries out for interpretation. Recalling the past does not provide its own justification. To be useful, it has to go through a process of transformation, and just like personal memory, it has to be worked through. In that case, interpretation of memory consists in going from the particular case to a general maxim - a principle of freedom, a socio-economic ideal, or an ethical imperative - which must be legitimate in itself and not just because it relates to a cherished memory.

The singularity of facts does not prevent their lessons from being universal. For example, the armed struggle against apartheid was a unique event, but it nonetheless bears a meaning and a lesson for everybody. Memory of the past can be useful to us if it hastens the reign of freedom and justice - and that means that the particular must be subordinated to the universal principle. The right use of social memory is one that serves a right cause. If we do not want the past to return, we have to do more than recite it. The old adage that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it is misleading because it implies that those who remember the past are likely to avoid its mistakes.

The historical past has no intrinsic meaning. Meaning and value only come from human agents questioning and judging the past. The same historical fact, as we have seen in the case of Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity, can be interpreted in opposite ways and support mutually contradictory ideologies and policies. All the same, the past can make a contribution to collective and individual identities, and it can support the development of values, ideals and principles. But to allow the past to serve in that way, we have to subject our own values, ideals, and principles to open and reasoned deliberation. Sanctifying the past robs it of all its effectiveness in the present; but if we simply assimilate the present to the past, we blind ourselves to the nature of both past and present, and this is in turn leads to distortion.

It is hard to find the path that skirts the pitfalls of sanctification and distortion, but it does exist.

In the past 15 years, there has been a continuous effort, on the part both of the governments of the Republic of South Africa and the United Republic of Tanzania, to mobilise the people in inaugurating a new consciousness about the history and meaning of the liberation movement in southern Africa and the rest of the continent. This entails broad-based political socialisation and the inculcation of political information, values and practices.

Political action is always a crisis of understanding what we genuinely understand we can do. What, for instance, is the meaning and value of naming slums or informal settlements after struggle icons? One could argue that such naming creates worlds of thought in which slum dwellers conceive their identity, that the names create a conceptual and political landscape for slum dwellers that generates both historical narration and political meaning. The iconic names should define the new political and ethical relation as a resolute decision to radically transform social and economic relations.

Politics, economics and ethics must ground such naming decisions in a sense of obligation to socio-economic justice.

This naming, this doing, grounded in a revolutionary principle, must define the relation of the state to the poor and excluded.

Invoking iconic names should make something happen. It should bring about the actual, not just the imaginative, experience of revolutionary possibilities with all their historical and geographical attributes. The post-apartheid chart of new names should tell the slum dwellers how to get from here to there. Each iconic name of a slum should be an organic part of a carrying over, a fresh raid into the possibilities of our democracy. Failure to do this empties the struggle of its meaning, and makes a caricature of the liberation movement.

Shaping collective memory about the struggle for a good cause is the necessary bridge between colonial domination and freedom. But such remembering is never a quiet, unruffled act of introspection and retrospection. It is a furious remembering, at times contested, a re-assembling of the dismembered past to make sense of the challenges of the present. In this sense, Roads to Independence: The African Liberation Heritage Programme, an AU project, provides ample opportunities for collective re-membering and collaborative use of social memory to improve the actual lives of people in the present.

Equally important, the transnational dimensions of the Liberation Heritage Route will compel people to appreciate that citizenship in our time requires that we recognise that we have political responsibilities. Two considerations are relevant here, drawn from the history of the liberation movement’s recognition and protection of human dignity as a fundamental value. They turn on questions about whether citizenship is basically an office or status, and what the basic location or site of citizenship is.

The other two considerations are drawn from reflections on the distinctive exigencies of our era, characterised by the need for regional integration and trans-territorial solidarity.

One of these considerations is the development of liberation heritage sites into centres of enterprise development, in which we learn about ourselves through the things that we make together, that material culture is an integral part of the struggle for freedom. Such communities of shared memory and work would help to provide the narrative unity of people’s lives, within and across national borders, which would entail an obligation to establish a strong basis for employment growth and regional integration.

Going forward, we must acknowledge the ways in which the past can be made to live meaningfully in the present. It is easy to understand why memory has acquired an aura of prestige among cadres of radical transformation, why even the humblest act of recollection is being assimilated to revolutionary purposes.

* Nkondo is a member of the South African Liberation Heritage Route technical team and the chairperson of the names verification committee, and the Freedom Park Council. He writes in his personal capacity.

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

The Sunday Independent