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Nelson, nostalgia and the nation

By Nedine Moonsamy

In South Africa, we’ve never had an easy time with nostalgia. For some citizens being nostalgic about the past is often tied to the guilt of a privileged, white childhood. For others it holds the concern about whether nostalgia glamorises the indignity of poverty under apartheid. In both cases we censor our emotions, turning nostalgia into clandestine memories. To share them in public is to risk being perceived as politically incorrect and to expose the naked truth that we have no shared past to help affirm each other’s memories. In South Africa nostalgia is a disease coated in repression and shame. It is far from the pleasant reveries that the tradition of European literature has made it out to be.

Yet in the European context nostalgia has value beyond the personal. It is treasured also for its political importance, fortifying the national imaginary with a sense of pride in relation to its past. But even in the political sphere our expressions of nostalgia have been anomalous. Unable to delve into sense of wonder about the past — so heavily tainted by the political oppression of apartheid — nostalgic intent got displaced unto the ideals of the post-apartheid future that has never arrived. This is to say that there was never anything pleasant about our nostalgia. It presented a complex and exaggerated denigration of the present and a melancholic, and at times desperate, desire to return to illusive promises of the utopian “future” that evaded us post-1994.

But in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, I cannot help but wonder if the national imaginary has finally begun to embrace what Nicholas Dames refers to as the “prestige” of nostalgia. Relying on Maurice Halbwach’s idea that reconstructing an image of the past, is to bestow upon it a prestige that it has never before possessed, Dames argues that nostalgia has a very specific talent for turning “distance and disconnection into the very principle of pleasure” (Amnesiac Selves p242).

As South Africa lives through this occasion of national mourning, Mandela’s death appears to be an event equal to the historical rupture of the post-apartheid nation and thus brings to conclusion the clingy fixation that has accumulated around it. Assessing the dense media coverage, it is evident that Mandela shifts from political icon to legend. Death itself serves as a circumstance to illustrate that he was truly beyond history — a visitor among us. And through the act of grieving, the man and the initiation of South African democracy divorces itself from what we consider real and assumes its more rightful categorisation as a sublime concept to which we can never return.

Despite Slavoj Žižek’s impatience with our country’s “celebratory crocodile tears” this if far from a pessimistic prospect — it can, in fact, become a very strategic form of national development. For by recognising the sheer unrepeatability of Mandela we also lose the desire to hanker after a post-apartheid utopia, knowing that these very laments taint the prestige of the memory itself.

Accordingly, Mandela’s death has given us our very own version of a Golden Age. A nation looks back and seems to acknowledge that we were once great. It is, for the first time, that words like “pride”, “honour” and “dignity” feature in descriptions of our collective past. We have become a country of noble birth, so far from previously used expressions of a monstrous birth to describe our lopsided exit from the womb.

To say, however, that we now have prestigious political nostalgia is not merely to suggest a sentimental antidote to our country’s problems, which is exactly why post-apartheid rhetoric proved problematic. For in the early days, when we placed all of our supposed unity as a nation in the future, we were left with constrained conversations in the present: in both political and personal contexts, we did not wish to sabotage and unravel something that we had not yet obtained, even if this came at the cost of denying our fundamental hybridity and inequality. On the contrary, assuming unity in relation to the past grants us an affective base to support rather than hamper democratic exchange.

Similarly, Ivor Chipkin, a South African political theorist, believes that the presence of sustained affect is a structural imperative for a democratic nation to exercise equality. Like the French who have fraternity through which to make sense of liberty and equality, he argues that we South Africans are in need of an affect that is independent from and larger than the people who maintain it as a source of pride and enjoyment. For only by having the assurance of solidarity, where we acknowledge mutual citizenship alongside our own, can the messy work of democratic relations occur. This is how, Chipkin suggests, affect performs the conversion of a merely hybrid populace into a people. And in this regard maintaining Mandela as a nostalgic institution can certainly buttress the South African national imaginary for the long journey ahead.

I’m sure we will spend a lot of time questioning the veracity of applying such unadulterated nostalgia to this particular point in history. And we are indeed correct in worrying about Mandela’s legacy and the possible abuse that nostalgia can inflict upon it. But this should not detract from the potentially constructive ways in which nostalgia can aid our young democracy. For by setting our sights so lovingly and firmly on what is now considered a collective past, we grant ourselves permission to abandon the anxious dream of the future and enable ourselves to look more realistically at our present.

Nedine Moonsamy is a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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