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Op-eds

Memory in a time of violence

  • Geoff
The looting of shops belonging to foreign nationals by crowds in Johannesburg this week will be among the impressions that visitors to the city take home with them when they leave. Cars were set alight in similar rampages in Pretoria and elsewhere, where foreigners were attacked and their shops looted.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Sep 05, 2019

Office workers in surrounding buildings locked their doors and watched anxiously. It’s a great pity as our country’s people are overwhelmingly respectful and generous.

This week’s events become part of the landscape of memory of Johannesburg, reflecting the anger of people starving and jobless, while politicians argue among themselves for power.

The incidents, involving attacks against Nigerians and others, are unlikely to be the last. Amidst a general xenophobia, which in 2008 resulted in about 60 deaths and thousands forced from their homes, looters claim that foreigners are taking their jobs, and bringing drugs to sell to children.

On the contrary, foreigners claim that they are creating jobs. We have to believe that things will settle, and become another memory in the city’s history.

What will former white South Africans who are now living in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States or elsewhere tell their new friends about their South African heritage?

They won’t talk about the looting, which was out of sight for the majority of whites, and remains so today. Jewish kids growing up in Canada and elsewhere can look back simplistically on the former lives of their parents in South Africa. The big issue then was apartheid, which dominated the country.

Most South Africans who believed they were against apartheid – even if it was in the safest way by voting for Helen Suzman – feel morally good today, and might present themselves as having taken a daring stance. If they are more honest, their memory might include embarrassment about how they and their parents went along with apartheid because it provided them with a high standard of living.

Cultural memory has many sides, depending on who is doing the remembering. A folk image for South African Jews is how poor European Jews came to South Africa in the late 1800s. Through sheer determination and acumen, they became by the second generation a middle-class people able to send their kids to good schools and universities. Poverty and anti-Semitism in Europe, and the chance of more opportunities, pushed them to leave for the new world.

Ironically, the attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg today look chillingly like the historical pogroms against Jews in Russia perpetrated by Russians and Lithuanians, where they were beaten up and their shops looted. The situation is dangerous. One Nigerian put it to a newsman as he tried to salvage new vehicles from his shop, “South Africa is sitting on a time bomb!”

Memory is a fluid thing. In years to come, the grandchildren of these looters might come to regard them positively, as people who fought to make ends meet in a corrupt society and put food on the table. Eventually, it becomes part of the people’s folk history. But for now, all that’s visible to outsiders is the hysteria of mobs attacking shops and their owners.

Meanwhile, memory continues to be made in Johannesburg, as looting and xenophobia carry on, and office workers cower in their buildings. South Africans still hope that their country will turn around so this behaviour doesn’t become its trademark. It would be tragic if the memory South Africans overseas hold of the country they grew up in was totally hollowed out. We have to believe it’s still possible to turn things around.

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