- "Born-Frees" on South Africa's Memory TrapsThe Year in South Africa
Can an entire community, or country, be trapped by its own memories? For a society like South Africa—a country that is still struggling with the legacy of apartheid, rising rates of concentrated poverty, the slow pace of the ANC's economic reforms, xenophobic or Afrophobic violence, and a poorly funded education system—the answer might be "yes." At least, in part, this is the sense one gets in reading Clinton Chauke's Born in Chains: The Diary of and Angry 'Born-free' and Malaika wa Azania's Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation. In this review I focus on Chauke's diary, as well as recent developments in the new black consciousness movement in postapartheid South Africa, exploring how the complicated and fragmentary nature of racial identities and related memories manifests in the narrative context of the book.
The author of Born in Chains is a young man who, like most of his generation of black South Africans, finds the "born-free" label a misnomer. For him, there is a dissonance between living as a black person in post-1994 South Africa—the environment blacks live in—and the idea of freedom. The black person's freedom seems to amount to a contrived abstraction generalized to the point of meaninglessness: Chauke maintains that Democratic South Africa has only produced political freedom; socioeconomic freedom remains a myth. In a review of the book, journalist and novelist Niq Mhlongo also concurs that "because it marked the dawn of our new democracy, the year 1994 is misconstrued as the marker of the end of apartheid, racism and even inequality" ("The Biography"), even when South Africans still contend with what Chauke himself calls "centuries of racial, tribal and religious oppression" (Chauke 60). Chauke acknowledges that it is going to take time for the black-and-white problem to be fixed in South Africa because the problems "are neither black, nor white nor coloured, but problems people face—problems people could overcome" (262). His book is a sobering, realistic, and at times humorous [End Page 140] read, wistfully calling on black South Africans to "humble [themselves], and try to consolidate power with the children of the victors, and teach one another to live together" (261).
As a diary, Born in Chains is what Rachel Langford and Russell West call "an uncertain genre uneasily balanced between literary and historical writing, between the spontaneity of reportage and reflectiveness of the crafted text, between selfhood and events, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the private and the public" (8). Yet, as Langford and West also observe, the diary is "a public text" in so far as it sparks powerful memories in its readers of what they, too, might have gone through at some point in their lives (10). It is an assertion that seems to resonate with Mhlongo's life, who has since admitted that reading Chauke's diary "sparked some very powerful memories for me, as I also completed my education at a poor rural school in Limpopo. Through Chauke's book, I am able to compare the standard of education and living that I experienced during the apartheid era with the post-1994 democratic period—and find that not enough has changed."
Diaries capture life as it is lived, according to Niall Bolger et al. In the narrative context of Born in Chains, this lived reality is full of emotional and introspective accounts of what it means "to be young and black in South Africa" (214). In Chauke's view, black South Africans have always grappled with racial/ethnic stereotypes that have at times threatened to invisibilize and exclude them from dominant national discourses. These stereotypes are rooted in the apartheid past, understood by Trevor Noah as the epitome of hatred: "Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all" (3). One of the main functions of this system of control and observation was to encourage disaffection—those who think about South African history today often do so not to glorify...