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Thando Sipuye is an executive member of the Africentrik Study Group at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He is currently a History Masters Candidate at the Govan Mbeki Research & Development Centre under the South African Research Chairs Initiative at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes in his personal capacity.

Apartheid Denialism and Historical Distortion go hand in hand

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By Julia Nzimande

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – 25 August 2010: Former South African president and winner of the 1993 Nobel peace prize, FW de Klerk, at the offices of the FW de Klerk foundation in Plattekloof, Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/Jaco Marais)

The 27th February 2020 marked the 42nd anniversary of the death in banishment of Prof. Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. In remembering Sobukwe we must introspect, look deep within ourselves to weed out any vices that make us less of the beings we ought to be: free, dignified and

The 21st March 2020 will also mark the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville-Langa Massacres, as well as 54 years since the proclamation of this day as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the United Nations (UN) in 1966.

2020 is merely 26 years after the end of formal apartheid. But, judging from the despicable denialist utterances of former apartheid President Frederik Willem de Klerk, and subsequent statements made by the FW de Klerk Foundation last month, it is evident that there are still unresolved questions in this country, particularly issues that continue to poison and distort the narrative of our history, national consciousness and our collective memory.

One such poisonous issue is apartheid denialism and the historical distortion of our past and historical facts related to the collective experience of Black people in Azania (South Africa).

In fact, this denialism and distortion extends far beyond the realm of apartheid, right into the periods of settler imperialism (arrival of Jan van Riebeeck), the enslavement of AbaTwa (Khoi and San) in the Cape, and reaches into the colonial period. Narratives around these histories remain distorted and dis-membered.

Apartheid denial and historical distortion refers to the dismissal of irrefutable and established facts, as well as the deliberate and intentional whitewashing, downplaying of the actual brutal, savage and barbaric events and experiences of Black people during the white days of apartheid rule.

Such denialism and distortion – operating to ease white guilt – belittles the suffering of the victims and survivors of the atrocities perpetrated by the racist apartheid government and its institutions.

Apartheid denial and historical distortion are a form of hate speech, a continued violation that dehumanizes the victims and survivors, and aims to justify the acts of barbarism meted out on the African masses by white society.

Part of this denialism is the very act of deliberately distorting and misrepresenting historical facts – the obvious omission, blotting out, silencing and complete erasure from public memory, the role played by many ordinary citizens and activists like my father, Nyakane Tsolo, the PAC leader who led the Positive Action Campaign Against Pass Laws in Sharpeville.

On 21st March 1960 Nyakane Tsolo, at only 20 years of age, led the PAC March in Sharpeville, whilst his other colleagues led from the front in other parts of the country; Philip Kgosana led the PAC March in Langa (Cape Town); Zachius Botlhoko Molete led the PAC March in Evaton; George Ndlovu led the PAC March in Alexandra Township; and Robert Sobukwe led the PAC March in Soweto.

Why is it that 26 years after so-called democracy, the South African public and the world at large do not know about Tsolo; how come the telling of stories around Sharpeville have never considered to dare mention his name – or any of the names of the other PAC leaders in Sharpeville?

Perhaps, they belonged to the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the fence; they belonged to one political organization and not another.

And this rendered them as persona non grata, unwelcome figures in the domain of history telling, people of no significance, shadows of history to be forgotten.

We seriously need to reflect on the construction and narration of public memory about historical events and public holidays in South Africa.

The mere fact that Sharpeville Day has been renamed as ‘Human Rights Day’ – just like the Soweto Students Uprising was also renamed to ‘Youth Day’ – attests indeed to part of this denialism and distortion.

However uncomfortable this might sound, the ruling party (ANC) has played a big role, whether intended or not, in enabling this gross denialism and historical amnesia exhibited by the likes of de Klerk.

The negotiated settlement at CODESA – its implicit Sunset Clause, and the theatrics of ‘forgiveness without repentance’ displayed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – set the stage for the de Klerk’s of this world to insult Black people.

But the denialism and distortion extends way beyond de Klerk the individual, right into the realms of white society, the curricular, how we teach history, what histories we teach, how we remember, recollect and repackage the past.

Our very approach to how we tell narratives about apartheid is selective and partisan and marginal; we have no inclusive approach to historical remembering and narrative. We remember selectively and we forget collectively.

The denialism and distortion also reaches far out into how we choose to commemorate our past, how we tell stories, how we re-member or dis-member the events of Sharpeville, June 16, Boipatong, Northcrest or even Marikana.

These annual pompous decorated State ceremonies, publicized and splashed all over media, have become repugnant spaces of no particular significance, void of any historical substance. They are events where the painful history of our struggle becomes sanitized.

The ease with which we accepted the redrafting of our history, all in the name of reconciliation, presents to the apartheid denialists the picture that we ourselves don’t take our reality, our experience and our history seriously.

We have become so desensitised and disconnected to the pain, experience and evils of apartheid that we even allow the likes of de Klerk to belittle and insult our people, without any consequence.

Simply because we don’t honour, acknowledge and respect our veterans and Ancestors enough, we give denialists like de Klerk, and others, a platform and audiences for their vile and deeply racist views permeating throughout white society.

Whilst we must condemn racists like de Klerk without fail, we must also introspect and interrogate our own complicity in enabling and accommodating white supremacy and supremacists who feel like they didn’t kill enough Black people under apartheid.

By failing to challenge apartheid denialism and historical distortion we risk the danger of repeating false narratives and thereby blur the line between historical truth, lies or propaganda.

This calls for a serious relooking at the educational system. And certainly, the decolonization of the curriculum that the #FeesMustFall campaign called for remains relevant, albeit unattended to, unresolved, unaddressed.

We need to ensure that we, and generations to come, are well equipped to distinguish and decipher facts from fiction.

People all over the world guard their history and past; they ensure that denial is rooted out, and criminalised. We must do the same, without any fear or shame.

We owe it to our forebears.

Born in exile in East Germany, Julia Nzimande is the daughter to Gadys Nzimande and Nyakane Tsolo, the 20 year old leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania who led the Positive Action Campaign Against Pass Laws in Sharpeville Township on 21st March 1960. She is also a founding director of the Nyakane Tsolo Foundation.

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