Accepted Paper:

The embodied past. reconciliation and resentment in post-apartheid South Africa  
Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Study)

Paper short abstract:

South Africa’s relation to its violent history is colonial and postcolonial. Postapartheid contrasts a desire for reconciliation and a reality of resentment. This paradox reached its peak during the AIDS controversy. To analyse it, my presentation develops the concept of embodiment of the past.

Paper long abstract:

South Africa's relation to its violent history is both colonial (conquest and exploitation since the 17th century) and postcolonial (during the segregation and later apartheid eras). In the aftermath of the 1994 first democratic elections, the politics of pacification, deracialization and nation-building was entirely defined through the idea of a dramatic and radical rupture with the past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, between 1996 and 1998, was meant to be the turning point of this process, both discovering and burying the times of white oppression ; just as the Apartheid Museum, at the entrance of Soweto, represented the reconstitution and memorialization of the hatred regime. Nelson Mandela, in the political sphere, and Desmond Tutu, in the religious world, were the incarnations of this so-called New South Africa. However, from the late 1990s, it became clearer and clearer that the past had not passed. From his virulent « Two nations » speech, contrasting his previous « I am an African » discourse, to his harsh attacks during the ceremony for the return of the remnants of Saartje Bartman, the « Hottentot Venus », Thabo Mbeki became the herald of a new politics of memory denouncing oblivion and denial. Resentment reached its peak during the AIDS controversy which awakened old wounds and unveiled hidden tragedies. The racialization of the debate, the africanization of the responses and the paranoid tone given to interpretations (with accusations of genocide) did not only remind a distant past ; it also encountered present revelations about what did happen and was until then unknown, including a Biological and Chemical Warfare project against the Africans.

Based on fieldwork both in the public sphere where politics and science meet and in townships and former homelands where everyday life is still profoundly marked by socio-racial inequalities, my presentation develops the concept of embodiment of the past, taken from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology but also inspired by De Certeau's distinction between historiography and psychoanalysis. Nora's « lieux de mémoire » underlined a trend in the officialization of the past through places, symbols, celebrations. Conversely, what I am interested in is that which resists to this institutionalization of memory, which is painfully inscribed in the body, which makes the past present in one's life : « memory as it flashes up at the moment of danger », in Benjamin's words. Beyond South Africa's so often evoked exceptionalism, I intend to analyze its exemplarity for the understanding of today's tensions around the legacies of the colonial past in Africa and in Europe, most notably. Against the common denunciation of over-victimization, I suggest to take seriously the necessity of dealing with the past to open the future. Beyond reconciliation and resentment, anthropologists thus have to make sense of the contemporary politics of time.

Panel P1
Colonial legacies: the past in the present