The politics of remembering

Woman&Home, April 2022

One of my first jobs was working at a bookstore in Tygervalley, a shopping centre in the northern suburbs of Cape Town.

It was the late 90s, and hardcopy books were still riding high. I worked nights and weekends, but the nights were my favourite: it was quieter and my shift partner and I would spend the time chatting and arranging bookshelves, reading, and unpacking stock, all the while drinking coffee and listening to jazzy tunes.

It was part of this particular store’s culture that everyone working there had a section they were associated with and were most familiar with. Mine, for my English and clearly heathen ways, was the esoterica section. This suited me just fine because I was young and cool and terribly wise and spiritually connected.

One night, a man came up to the counter with a collection of political books and, as I rung them up, asked me if I knew anything about them. ‘Oh no,’ I said, rather proudly. ‘I’m more interested in esoterica and spiritual books. Politics isn’t really my thing.’ I’m sure I pulled a face that suggested extreme distaste. ‘Ah,’ he said and continued to pay while I packed his books.

As he turned to leave, he paused and seemed to consider something for a moment and then said: ‘It might help to remember that politics is the reason you’re able to choose that it’s not of interest to you.’ And with that he left.

It would’ve been around 1996–97, just after the country’s first democratic elections, and we were deep into the ‘rainbow nation’ narrative. I was a white, middle-class child-going-on-adult, somewhere between 20 and 21, living in a very conservative, very white neighbourhood. Politics was never directly addressed in my family or even close community; racism was an undercurrent of actions and key words: enamel plates and cups for the ‘garden boy’ and ‘cleaning girl’, segregated churches, no people of colour in our school…

I never had to fight for equality or the right to vote or the right to choose. Other people did that for me.

The man who dropped that pearl so casually that night was a black man but I was so ignorant about politics and the country I was living in, its people and its history, that it would take me another five years and living on two other continents to understand the significance of what he meant. The political and economic context I’d been born into as a white person made it easy to ignore reality. As a woman coming to adulthood in the 90s and 2000s, I never had to fight for equality or the right to vote or the right to choose. Other people did that for me. As a white person, I’ve never had to fight for my humanity.

Every year, when Freedom Day rolls around, I’m reminded of this man and the privilege of being an inheritor of a system that places human rights front and centre, and the luxury of never having to lay my life on the line to achieve it.

Say what you want about the quality of leadership South Africa enjoys, our Constitution remains one of the best in the world.  

You don’t have to think twice about your sexual or reproductive rights or whether you’ll be legally protected against discrimination based on your sex, gender, race, religion, or language. You don’t have to march for your freedom of movement or hide when you post angry opinions about the government on social media. You can choose to vote or which faith you would like to follow. You can expect your rights to be respected. There are ‘leading democracies’ today where these rights are being eroded or have never been codified.

Maybe there’s a new kind of privilege slipping in, where we take these rights for granted and forget that these systems are not innate but in constant creation. Maybe that’s the way it should be. But forgetting is a slippery slope to ignorance and apathy, and suddenly you’re just a 20-something child mouthing off about how much you don’t need to know about something that is supporting your way of life.

Mandela said: ‘Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.’ Commemorating Freedom Day reminds us that ‘never again’ is an engagement with the political context of today to ensure our freedom into the future.

Detail of a photo by John-Paul Henry on Unsplash

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