Cultural Critique 54 (2003) 88-119
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"Healing the Nation"
Medicolonial Discourse and the State of Emergency from Apartheid to Truth and Reconciliation
Only by knowing the truth can we hope to heal the terrible open wounds that are the legacy of apartheid.... Only the truth can put the past to rest.
Nelson Mandela's rationale for creating the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa was, from its inception, to heal national wounds. Archbishop Desmond Tutu also embraced the discourse of healing in his role as head of the commission, stating, for instance, "There is not a single person who has not been traumatized by apartheid—even the perpetrators. We have to pour balm on tortured souls" (quoted in ibid., 144). That the architects of the newly democratic nation have recourse to metaphors of illness and healing is not surprising considering the long-standing tradition in South Africa of using biological analogies to interpret social phenomena and promote national causes. It has gone largely uncommented, though, that the medical tenor of contemporary political discourse has roots in colonial ideology and related Christian iconography as well as in indigenous African cultures. Whereas the new, democratically elected government may appropriately draw a line in the sand between its own goals and methods and those of previous regimes, society itself can never make such a clear and decisive break with the past. Medicolonial discourse is part of the problematic legacy of apartheid, a legacy that cannot be legislated away but must be challenged rigorously in public debate.
The present critique of the recurrent rhetoric of disease in South African politics is thus offered in the spirit of the new dispensation, [End Page 88] which recognizes the cost of whitewashing the past and which acknowledges that national reconciliation will be impossible without some accounting for the violent methods of apartheid. Arguably, the values of truth and reconciliation may best be served by a critical public examination not only of the past but also of the legacy of this past in contemporary South Africa. In his foreword to the report of the TRC, Tutu acknowledged that "others will inevitably critique this perspective—as indeed they must. We hope that many South Africans and friends of South Africa will become engaged in the process of helping our nation to come to terms with this past and, in so doing, reach out to a new future" (Villa-Vicencio and Verwoerd 2000, xiv). Questioning aspects of the TRC therefore should not be interpreted as counter to national interests or the goal of reconciliation. Rather, as Charles Villa-Vicencio and Wilhelm Verwoerd point out, open discussion is vital to the construction of community, and "It is indeed only to the extent that there is broad-based public debate and that divisive issues are sincerely wrestled with by opinion makers that the work undertaken by the Commission can contribute to the South African transitional process" (xv).
Without such vigorous debate, including due consideration of the legacy of apartheid, the stark social divides of present-day South Africa tend to be interpreted in purely racial terms. This short-sighted perspective obscures any vision of the future that stretches beyond the current economic decline and rise in crime. Forgetting fosters Afropessimism by blaming current conditions on the revenge of the "Dark Continent" or the reassertion of the "African personality" rather than the legacy of three decades of apartheid (not to mention the preceding centuries of colonial domination). Facing up to the past counters this hysterical Afropessimism, for, even when it links the "new" South Africa with the "old," it demonstrates the progress that has already been accomplished in the sphere of political freedoms and points the way for crucial future developments in other spheres, such as health care.
Beyond engaging in the ongoing debate over national transition, it is my intention to challenge one of the central terms of this debate: healing, which casts apartheid as an illness turning South Africans into victims requiring the ministrations of a...