The Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma conference at Stellenbosch University (SU) started on Wednesday (5 December) with several scholars and practitioners deliberating on important questions relating to historical wounding and haunting legacies as a result of trans-generational trauma. This conference will end on Sunday (9 December).
Oryx Media's report on the proceedings at the conference held at the Faculty of Theology follows:
Across the world, the descendants of the victims of slavery, colonialism, genocide and racism are raising their voices for reparation, reconciliation and justice. Many of these people look to South Africa's relatively recent transition from apartheid to democracy for guidance and inspiration.
On the first day of a conference examining the reverberations of historical trauma, at SU on 6 December, Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, chair of the conference committee and incumbent of the Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at the University, described the ties that bind the descendants of First Nations in Australia and Canada to the descendants of slaves in the United States and those who lost loved ones in the Rwandan genocide. In this context, South Africa was a site of global interest.
Drawing delegates attention to the mushrooming squatter homes she witnesses on her way to work in Stellenbosch – “creeping closer and closer to the famous vineyards" – Prof Gobodo-Madikizela said the level of inequity, poverty and suffering made it more critical than ever for people to find and talk to each other.
The first keynote speaker, acclaimed Harvard University-based post-colonial theorist Professor Homi Bhabha, delivered his talk by the light of a cellphone torch due to loadshedding. “We live in dark times," he said.
Describing US President Donald Trump's former chief strategist Stephen Bannon as a salesman for the “new barbarism" taking root in the US, Europe and elsewhere, Professor Bhabha said that the barbarians used discrimination and dishonesty against their perceived enemies, whether at home or abroad, in their approach to refugees.
He warned of the dangers of “the inflammatory language of politics". There was a “line-up of inflated male leaders" presently dominating world politics, from Presidents Trump and Putin to Prime Ministers Netenyahu and Modi, Recent research in India showed that the incidence of hate speech by politicians and government officials increased 500% over the past four years.
“How I forgave Eugene De Kock for killing my father"
Following Professor Bhabba, international conference delegates were riveted by Candice Mama's story of the killing of her father, Glenack Masilo Mama, by apartheid-era policeman Eugene de Kock – and how she later met and forgave the killer.
Mama was nine-months-old at the time of the killing. She learned when she nine-years-old of the manner of his death from a photograph of his charred body at the steering wheel of a burned out car published in a book written by Jacques Pauw.
For years, every time she heard the name, Eugene de Kock, she nearly had palpitations, and aged sixteen she was diagnosed with serious stomach ulcers and depression. The doctor said her anger was killing her body. She realised that every time she even thought of De Kock she started “just being a mean person overall".
At the age of 24, the same age at which her father died, the National Prosecuting Authority contacted her family to ask if they wished to meet De Kock. They did.
“I asked him: 'Do you forgive yourself.' He kept quiet, looked around the room and dabbed his eye. He said it was the one question he dreaded being asked. 'When you've done the things I've done how do you forgive yourself?' he asked.
“When I met him I realised he wasn't an external monster; he was a human being. Just being human is so complex. We come with so much trauma and so many years of accumulated baggage."
Mama said that although De Kock was positioned as the quintessential apartheid monster, he was part of a system, and following orders. When they met, he did not blame his superiors for his actions but accepted responsibility for what he had done.
Asked if, now that he had been released from prison, she would accept De Kock as her neighbour, she said she had “a certain sense of attachment" to him and would welcome him.
In a sense she felt somewhat lucky, she said, because the family had been able to bury her father, and she had someone to forgive. Many descendants of apartheid-era victims still don't know where their loved ones are, or who was responsible for their deaths.
US universities confront their history in the slave trade
Moving to North America, and the reverberations of slavery, Dr Linda Mann of Columbia University presented some of the work of the Georgetown Memory Project.
The United States had a very un-reconciled past, she said, and descendants of slaves continued to bear the brunt of injustice today – be it economically, educationally or in life expectancy. In the 1990s, what Dr Mann described as “Truth and Reconciliation efforts" began sprouting across the US to commemorate, secure oral history, effect reparations and foster reconciliation.
In 2003, Brown University initiated a slavery and justice project to study past institutional dependence on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Forty more universities have subsequently initiated similar projects, Georgetown University among them.
Between 1717 and 1838, the Society of Jesuits of Maryland engaged in large-scale slave-holding to develop what were then Jesuit Colleges. In 1838 the society sold 272 slaves to plantation owners in Louisiana for a total of $115 000.
The Georgetown Memory project has sought to trace the descendants of these slaves through one of the most extensive genealogical searches in US history, Dr Mann said. Thus far, 211 of the 272 slaves have been identified – with 7100 descendants, 3100 of whom are living today.
The next step is deciding what to do with the information. The university is considering a new policy on giving the right of free admission for descendants. A number of descendants hired lawyers to demand reparation, but what form should reparations take. Memorials and contrition ceremonies don't provide full answers; how do the descendants even get to Georgetown today, Dr Mann asked.
“Our hope is to have a TRC of some form, but we are just at the beginning of that discussion. It may take 18 months," she said.
* The conference continues at the Stellenbosch University Theology Department until Sunday. Among today's highlights are:
- Cathy Caruth of Cornell University, focuses on the language of trauma and testimonyon literary theiry and on contemporary discourses concerning the annihilation and survival of language. She delivers a keynote address on Friday at 8.30am
- Professor Bhaba returns for a conversation with retired freedom fighter and judge Albie Sachs, titled Living with the Past (Friday 4.45pm).
- Lindiwe Hani, daughter of the assassinated Chris Hani, discusses her conversations with Janusz Walus, the man who assassinated her father (6pm).
This communiqué was distributed for the conference committee by Oryx Media
Main photo: Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, speaking at the conference
Photo: Attending the conference were, from left: Proff Reggy Nel, Homi Bhabha, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Eugene Cloete.
Photographer: Stefan Els
Read the original media release here.