- Racism, Memory and the Apartheid Archive: towards a psychosocial praxis ed. by Garth Stevens, Norman Duncan and Derek Hook
Some comforts of whiteness
I loved reading this book as I seldom enjoy academic texts. I remember a few days at the beach reading, thinking about my life in South Africa, and wallowing in the shame of my own whiteness. I recalled my own painful-to-remember relationship with ‘our maid, Priscilla’ – I never knew her real name. I remembered how the boys at school would curse each other with racial epithets; and I recognised how I too use telltale memory devices to live with the shame of my own whiteness: selective remembering, the promiscuous narrating of shame, the conjuring up of the fantastic object of a racist father, and so on. I was forced to confront my unearned, ongoing racial privilege, written in my body and the material world that surrounds me. There was something quite therapeutic – even a masochistic pleasure – in letting my own autobiographical shapshots join the community of narrative extracts from the lives that haunt the apartheid archive. The archivists invite such narration. The book is a call to discourse. It is a celebration of storytelling, in the belief that stories are ‘products constructed within the broader social, historical, cultural, political, material, intersubjective and personal matrix’, and in the hope that they will reveal the ‘historical and continued exercise of racialized power relations’ (Sonn, Stevens and Duncan 295-6).
The apartheid archive is a collection of narratives of South Africans who were invited to ‘submit narratives or short stories of their earliest and/or most significant experiences of race and racism in apartheid South Africa’ (278). It is a confessional repository that elicited truth-telling about personal [End Page 72] experiences of racism. It appears as though most of the narratives come from the academics involved in the project and their acquaintances, and the narratives reflect aspects of the political leanings and class investments of the narrators.
The editors present the volume as a complement to the literature on the legacy of apartheid racism in cultural studies and post-colonial theory. The book provides a more overtly psychological account that seeks to uncover the ‘psychical mechanisms of racism’ which are ‘inextricably bound up with’ social forces and subjective experiences that the history of apartheid has made possible (5). Certainly, there is a gap here, and it is good to read South African psychologists writing about apartheid and theorising the sociopolitical and historical constitution of the subject.
The chapters straddle a heady range of theoretical perspectives, including such uneasy bedfellows as Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Goffman. The authors also have analytic differences, conducting realist, psychoanalytic and deconstructionist readings of the narratives. Some use the narratives to talk about life under apartheid; some use the talk to draw conclusions about the mental life of the speakers; while others seek to understand what the talk is doing discursively or psychodynamically, and how it articulates an understanding of itself, either consciously or unconsciously. All this diversity manages to find a home in the overarching theoretical and methodological framework of psychosocial studies, the belief that storytelling is a transformative social practice, and a commitment to the psycho-political project of ‘questioning and subverting relations of power through deconstructing and de-ideologizing them’ (8). Together the chapters assemble fragments of individual lives and experiences, subjects them to a harrowing academic gaze. The book presents a collage of psychological life under apartheid and in South Africa today.
But it’s not what you’d expect from a book entitled Race, Memory and the Apartheid Archive. I picked up the book expecting to read experiences of racism from black South Africans who faced the blunt edge of apartheid. However, the book is obsessed with whiteness. The appendix summarises the race of the narrators who make an appearance: 22 whites, 11 blacks, 10 coloureds, and 4 Indians (their designations). In addition, the white (and to a lesser extent, coloured) voices are heard over and over again...