“Pain that is brought to speech brings on energy, pain that is not brought to speech brings on violence. Pain that is brought to speech brings empowerment, pain that is tranquilized and privatized is made into a commodity of guilt” – Walter Brueggemann
On 16 June 2016, it will be exactly forty years since the Soweto uprising. Forty years since the black youth of our nation rose up to face the sordid oppression of white supremacy. On 1976, they were not met with understanding, or dialogue, or reason. No, on that day they rose up and were met with bullets and blood. That day.
It sinks into the collective memory of our divided national consciousness – for some, as a reminder of freedom, of sacrifice, of pain; and for others, a reminder of privilege, of supremacy, and of injustice. We cannot forget. We cannot afford to forget.
Yet there is a vast difference between wilfully forgetting pain, and then “tranquillizing” and “privatising” our pain into “a commodity of guilt” (to use Brueggemann’s phraseology) so that it eventually becomes so disconnected from us, so numb to us, that we end up turning a day like June 16 into nothing more than a public holiday and a chance to relax.
What do we mean by this? We seem to have forgotten. We seem to have become numb. With access to white privilege, the majority of white South African society doesn’t need to remember, doesn’t need to feel the pain. Thus, forgetting and “becoming numb” is in itself a choice of privilege and comfort, over the discomfort of the realisation that the entire structure and entity that is “South African white society” has been built upon what the youth of June 16 were fighting against. How much will this privileged choice of forgetting continue to benefit the minority at the expense of the majority? How long will this go on unchecked and unchanged?
Yet it is also apparent that the emerging black middle-class, alongside many areas of the black-dominated political space (with its nuances of elitism and bourgeois power), has also succumbed to the numbness of privatising pain and memory. Thus, similar to that of the privileged white minority (yet not the same in a historical sense), this affords the choice of numbness and forgetting through elitist access to wealth, opportunity and connections for the emerging black middle-class and upper-class.
Yet again, it must asked: at what price? What is the cost of this numbness? Will it be more schools being burnt down? Will it be more violence perpetrated against black bodies on white sports fields? Will it be more unemployed youth? Will it be more anger rising up against African foreign nationals because of desperation and poverty? Will it be more arrogance on the part of white society as it continues to not own up to the advantages of its past?
We cannot afford to forget because the price to be paid in the present will be a dishonour to the price paid in the past. On that day. We must remember and honour and learn from that day, so as never to repeat it again.
For us at Izwe Lethu, we are stirred by Brueggemann’s words. We see the pain, we know the pain, we feel the pain: and now we sense the need to bring speech to this pain, to give it a voice, to keep it from being tranquillized and privatised.
Brueggemann goes on to say: “We have to work towards having honest speech with each other. When we have honest speech we get to speak out about the things that are unjust and unfair. We need a more honest and abrasive speech to bring our talk into connection with our social reality. Any intent to curb that kind of speech is a desire to not have reality pointed out to us. But if we don’t have reality pointed out to us nothing will ever change.”
To break from this numbness, South Africa needs reality. To act towards this we are holding a peaceful protest this year on 16 June: against forgetting the memory of 1976, against numbing the pain of oppression, against the continued existence of white supremacy and white privilege, and against the rampant injustice we still see in our country today – even forty years later.
So come and join us on June 16 as we take a stand. Make a sign of protest with #40yearslater written on it and meet us at 10am on Thursday 16 June at the circle on uMhlanga Rocks Drive (next to the McDonalds, just outside gateway). We have chosen to meet at this specific venue because it is an example of the excessive wealth and privilege on display that has led us to forget and keep silent. We will be standing in peaceful solidarity at robots, on street corners and at the traffic circle on uMhlanga Rocks Drive with our signs and our voices.
Michael van Niekerk – IZWE LETHU!