Archives of Apartheid

Thursday, January 1, 2009 | Dr Carol Becker | Books

Dr Carol Becker is Professor and Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University and patron of Voices of Women

This excerpt is from her chapter, Archives of Apartheid, in Thinking in Place, Art Action and Cultural Production, Paradigm Publishers, 2009

Dedicated to the memory of Florence N. Mdlolo, who died tragically as I was writing this essay. All the women involved in the project have benefited enormously from such reflection on their lives. But for one woman in particular, the project provided a way in which to tell not just a bit of her story, but her entire story. Florence N. Mdlolo wrote her memoir and then illustrated each episode (forty in all) with its own memory cloth. The Truth and Reconciliation’s greatest contribution was to give back to South Africa its heart.

Conceived by South African sculptor Andries Botha, the project Amazwi Abesifazane – Voices of Women, has been centered around the production of “memory cloths” – small embroidered, sometimes beaded pieces of colored fabric that tell the stories of traumatic events experienced by South African women, most of them Zulu from the townships of South Africa. These are the stories that have been passed over by the discussions about the nightmares of apartheid. Involving more than two thousand participants, the project has attempted to create a forum so that these women might finally be heard while they cultivate their own creativity, earn money from such work, develop their consciousness as women, occupy their rightful place in history, and connect with women globally.

The process begins with workshops in which women are encouraged to write (if they can), or to tell someone who then transcribes, a narrative about a traumatic event they witnessed or experienced directly during the years of apartheid – something they cannot forget. They are then encouraged to represent their stories visually. Many of these women have highly developed skills with thread or beads; others are embroidering for the first time. This project takes its impetus from the national endeavour to construct social memory. Since 1995 South Africa has attempted to make transparent, and then to reconcile, the thirty years of Apartheid. The act of creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the years of public testimony, confession, and debate that followed, have changed South Africa. The new progressive constitution guarantees that it will never be possible for it to return to the fascist state it once was. Nor can it any longer hide the consequences of Apartheid. It is into this environment of on-going historical and psychological reflection and debate about the past and its implications for the future that The Voices of Women was imagined into being. The project brings to this ongoing conversation about history and the construction of a national archive a focus on the often-undocumented lives of women, many of whom are from the rural areas and townships that suffered extreme violence. Writes poet and essayist Njabulo Ndebele: “The homelands were another arena of gross violations of human rights. KwaZulu-Natal, the Ciskei, and KwaNdebele, in particular . . . suffered cyclical attacks and counter-attacks in which the line between victims and perpetrators blurred as comrades and vigilantes assumed both roles. . . . In the townships, people experienced ‘necklace killings’, the burning of houses of suspected spies, and a reign of terror by groups acting in the name of liberation.”

These are the experiences that the women recorded. The “object of their labor” was to create a representation of social memory, written and visual, that can provide an important addition to the national archive – a collective indictment of Apartheid’s maleficence. How does one remember what one most wants to forget? Why does one choose to remember at all? At the core of the project is the attempt to recreate history from memory and to conjure memory. Each cloth is a piece of archival information. The act of telling brings another story filled with important historical and cultural data into the public arena and adds it to the now almost two thousand others. In so doing it links the history of the individual with that of other women in similar circumstances. It brings each woman into a process that is as much about the future as it is about the past. While women do this concentrated work of telling and stitching, they reflect. But it is in the sharing of the past that the patterns that affect all their lives become most apparent.

They begin to describe to one another how they have been treated within patriarchal structures, both by the systems of Apartheid, invented and executed by white men, and also by systems of patriarchy within tribal structures that allow for the dominance of black men. In both, black women are at the bottom of the hierarchy, often sexually abused, abandoned, and economically exploited. Their children are at times murdered. It is through the telling of the stories in words and images that women first begin to understand that their lives, their stories, and their positions within the narrative are similar to those of other women. Another goal is to link women to global movements that have developed in Latin America, Canada, and Africa. Hence, women who are often most excluded from conversations about globalization and its effects on their daily lives have created a forum within which to debate such issues.

The cloths give voice to these narratives, and from them we learn each individual woman’s trauma but also the cumulative weight of trauma marked by repetition through the narratives of humiliation, brutality, and the sheer randomness of tragedy among people who have few allies and fewer options.

It also becomes clear that it is these women who are the caretakers of the most at-risk members of society – children. All it takes is the loss of one caretaker to create an untenable situation for a child who can then never be salvaged.

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