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Transcript: In conversation with Jacob Dlamini


Tamar Garb: Welcome to this episode in our podcast series. My name is Tamar Garb, I'm the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies and a historian and curator of South African visual histories, especially photography. And it's my pleasure today to be in conversation with Jacob Dlamini, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University. Jacob started out as a journalist and has become a consummate writer in a number of fields, interweaving personal perspectives and experience with assiduous archivally-based histories of South Africa that challenge received narratives and popular wisdom; and the Manichaean or binary-thinking that characterises much political discourse today; and we're going to get to those in a minute I hope in our conversation. This conversation in fact marks the appearance of two important new books, The Terrorist Album and Safari Nation, both just published this year, which is an incredible achievement in itself. And both of these books point to some central themes that have characterised Jacob's work and go right back to his first book Native Nostalgia, which was published in 2009. It's a book that asked difficult questions and asked us to face up to difficult truths about the past, and I think that is really, Jacob, what characterises your work so deeply; it isn't always comfortable reading, but it's always incredibly stimulating reading. So, I'm really excited to enter into this conversation and dialogue with you and want to thank you for agreeing to engage with us about your work. So, I wanted to just start off just very broadly, Jacob, if you wouldn't mind, just thinking about the project of historical writing. You're committed to a particular way of thinking about the past and to the work of the historian; what is it about the role of the historian that you think is so important? And what is the politics of history writing for you?
 
Jacob Dlamini: The politics of writing for me is informed by my understanding of the role of history in how we see the present; so, the role of history and how we think about where we are and what it means to be where we are as South Africans. And I mean this at the level of class, I mean it at the level of race, at the level of gender, and sexual orientation. So, how does the past determine the ways in which we see phenomenon? That for me is absolutely important when it comes to the politics of writing history. But there's also another dimension to this, and that is to try and understand the centrality of race in South African history without making race all-determining. So, cutting race down to analytical size in ways that don't dismiss its importance - because race matters and it matters in the most pernicious ways possible - but it also doesn't determine everything that people do, the way that people go about their lives. So how one negotiates this too is for me a challenge that is constant, and a challenge that I don't always meet, but it's a challenge that I'm drawn to; understanding the centrality of race while also understanding that race doesn't explain everything. So that's part of the work that I'm trying to do.
 
Tamar: I'm very taken by your idea of the present tense and the tensions of the present; it's both the time of now, but it's also the anxiety in which we live. And it's interesting that you take the conversation to the conundrum of race, right at the start, because as South Africans we are pickled in race. And you write quite beautifully in one of your books, I think it might've been in the Safari book, around interpolation; about how as South Africans we are all interpolated, and we rise to the call of racial determinism because that is how we've been produced as subject; and what it is to live with and think with those interpolations is, I think, part of the tension that we inhabit.
 
Jacob: Absolutely, absolutely. To add to what you just said, Tamar, is to understand interpolation not as direct correspondence; there's interpolation and there's response, but to understand those moments where there is no one-to-one correspondence; that if you are interpolated as a native, you respond as a native, and the interpolation and the response match transparently and seamlessly. So what interests me are those moments where the two don't always go together; the moments where the response is always much bigger than what the interpolation was initially. So that's some of what draws me, that's some of what interests me in both the centrality but also the marginality of race; those moments where race is absolutely crucial, where you cannot understand anything without understanding race, but also those moments where you have to put race aside and say 'what else is going on here?'. So just to illustrate this point, one of the stories I tell in The Terrorist Album is of fathers who actually inform on their sons, on behalf of the Security Police. In both instances, it's the personal is absolutely key to unlocking that mystery; so why would fathers do this to their own sons? In the one case, it's a descendant of Holocaust survivors from Hungary who now live in South Africa and sees his son getting involved in the anti-apartheid movement and worries that this might actually put the whole family at risk again. Of course, this might be self-serving as an explanation for why the father would betray his son, but I think it's something that we have to take seriously. And the second case, there's a divorce at the heart of the matter; the father and the mother get divorced, this splits the family- surprise, surprise- and people take different loyalties, and these then shape how people respond to one another, but also how they respond to the state. And so, the father is acting for the state against his son in part because of the discord that comes out of the divorce. So, taking that story and taking it seriously, without reducing it to race, is absolutely crucial.
 
Tamar: It's really interesting. I think part of what's so interesting about the way in which you think about race is the fracture- the failure- of race. And you talk about failure quite a lot in the work; the failure of the bureaucratic system of the apartheid state, the apparent belief in its efficiency and effectiveness, but actually the failures of it to police that which it sets out to police in some ways, and which I find very interesting; but also the failures and fractures in subject formation and in identity formation. So you talk very strongly against the determinism of apartheid; so at the same time as we're all in a sense pickled in race, as I said earlier, and our life chances and opportunities are determined by those categorisations and racialisations, there are all these ways in which the edifice crumbles.
 
Jacob: Oh, absolutely.
 
Tamar: So, I'm fascinated by the stories you tell, and by the way in which the stories of individuation and individual lives really show the fault lines and the cracks in the edifice.
 
Jacob: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I quite like the phrase 'pickled in race', because that's what we are, that's what we are. But then also those moments where we transcend that, there are also those moments where we are much bigger than that, and that for me is absolutely what's interesting. And I do this in part, looking at those moments where race explains it all and then those moments where race doesn't explain it all, because I think this helps us; appreciating these two moments I think helps us understand why the apartheid state failed. I write somewhere that the anti-apartheid movement sang a good war, but it didn't actually fight a good war, if you look at it militarily; we didn't fight a good war, but we sang a good war. What then, if not the military option? So, what then accounts for the success of the anti-apartheid movement? And it did succeed. And I think it's precisely that inability of the state to capture in total the individual lives of people; it's that failure to be authoritarian, that failure to be total as an institution. And it failed in part because you never can control in total how people react, how people feel, and how people live. There's no full accounting of how individual lives conduct themselves. And this for me is quite interesting because if there's one fantasy that has lived on despite the end of apartheid, it's precisely this idea that the state can do it all; that the state can just decide that 'here's what we're gonna do', and then goes out and does it. In fact, you see it with the response to Covid in South Africa; the way in which the state has become a nanny state in parts, the way in which the police and the military have actually come out in full force- because they get to do things that they can't do otherwise, which is to kick people around, to do all kinds of things that you only can do in an authoritarian state. But even then, we know about the failures, we know about the lack of success. And I think it's important to remind ourselves as we try to move away from the legacy of apartheid- I don't know if we ever can- that the state can't do it all.
 
Tamar: At the same time - I noted when I was reading your work how persuasive you are about the failures of the state to coerce the subject into complete conformity - but at the same time, I was also reminded of my own experience growing up as I did in South Africa in the '70s particularly, and you write a lot about the '70s, about the culture of fear, which was really, really so pervasive. And one place I think where the state was very powerful was to mask its inefficiencies. It was a bullying state, wasn't it? And we were all bullied by it. And I have a visceral memory of that.
 
Jacob: Oh, absolutely. One of the revelations for me - and this actually goes to the heart of what you've just identified Tamar - one of the revelations for me was, in my interviews with former Security Police Officers, the discovery of just how ordinary these people are, just how ordinary. And the struggle that ensues from this encounter where I'm trying to match the menace to the face, where I'm looking at these pathetic figures and trying to think back to, in my case, the 1980s, and to look at them and say 'so you were the sources of my fear? You were the sources of anxiety? And here you are as pathetic as can be, how is this possible?' And I think it's possible in part because the state was successful at masking its own inefficiencies and broadcasting the potential power it had not just to instil fear in people but then to cause harm. And so, one of the arguments I make in The Terrorist Album is that we often times make the mistake of mistaking the state's brutality for efficiency, when the two are not the same thing. Brutality is one thing; efficiency is something different altogether. And I think this is important to remember. But you're right, the '70s - just from my reading of the literature because I think I was too young to get a sense of this, the '80s is when I come into my own - I remember the fear. I remember the smell of tear gas, and that paralysing, paralysing taste that is pepper but too much pepper- I never can describe it in full; but it's not just the taste of pepper that's overpowering and overwhelming, it's also the fear that comes after the cloud has lifted.

Tamar: And I think that that also goes someplace to understanding one of the themes of your work, which is to think not only about self-conscious collaborators, but to think about complicity in the bystander. And this is one of the themes that I think characterises a lot of your writing, is you ask the question 'how did the apartheid state manage to last as long as it did and to affect the brutal violence that it managed to affect?'. And part of your answer in successive books and projects is to say that so many of us lived lives that ended up as being complicit participants in the culture of which we were a part. And I think that this tracking of both collaboration, on the one hand, and the passivity of a kind of tolerance, is really interesting; and it's not unrelated to the question of fear because I do think that subjects were made docile- this is not to exonerate people, but it's to talk about the kind of quiet violence that pervaded the social, and how people became coerced into a kind of passive compliance.
 
Jacob: Absolutely. I think the fog of fear - but also I think the fog of misunderstanding marked people's appreciation of the state and what it was capable of doing - lifted- and it's no coincidence here- it lifted the moment we started getting more and more stories about the corruption- that is the rank corruption of the apartheid order; just how immoral these people were. I think there is that correspondence, and that the moment you start seeing those stories that do more and more to expose the petty corruption- the inconsistencies- it's at that moment that I think people start thinking - not everyone obviously - but I think people start thinking 'wait a second, this is not what we think it was, this is maybe not the state that is to be feared in the way that we do fear it'. How many people act on that realisation? I think the numbers are small; but I think that in the '70s, going into the '80s, I think these are the crucial moments where you see the shift in people appreciating that 'well actually, the state is not what it's cracked up to be'. You see it also in some of the more spectacular forms of apartheid; so, think about the Group Areas Act. It takes years after the introduction of the Group Areas Act for the apartheid government to actually start affecting some of its own structures. They try and destroy District Six in Cape Town and then halfway through they actually abandon the project. They kicked people out, they kicked people of colour out, but halfway through District Six is actually part destroyed in total. Something similar happens in '55 to Sophiatown where they start destroying, but then halfway through it they stop. And so this is not the all-conquering state that I think we wanted to believe it was for propaganda purposes, but also just I think to make yourself- especially those of us who chose the path of least resistance- we wanted to believe that you can't do anything because if you do then the state will crush you. And I think this is important. And of course, collaboration is a loaded, loaded term; so how one thinks about it - in the absence of a better term to accommodate all the complexities of what gets lumped into the notion of collaboration - is something that I think exercises me quite a bit because I have to think constantly about the choices that people made because they had to make those choices. I'm thinking in particular of parents who had no choice but to send their kids to Bantu school education institutions, if that makes any sense. That collaboration, is that giving legitimacy to what was fundamentally a corrupt system? Or was it an instance of people who had to make do; people who had to live because that's what was called for them to do?
 
Tamar: Well, I think that's very interesting because I think the whole complexity of thinking about the spectrum in which people live from complete collaboration and actually betraying, as you said, sons and fathers and family members and comrades on the one hand, to a kind of passive collusion or complicity with the system into which you were completely locked, and through which you had find meaning in life. There is a huge spectrum there and I think that it's really interesting to think about. I imagine though, that in terms of the politics of South African history, you must encounter quite a lot of push-back, because there is such a need to read this history in relation to the opposition of victim and perpetrator; and so, the minute you start trying to complicate the relationship - that binary between victim and perpetrator - you yourself are seen to be a collaborator or colluder. So, I'm just interested to know how you navigate that?
 
Jacob: Or worse, right? I've been called a black conservative, someone's threatened to lynch me- yeah, it gets worse than that. So, here's where I think I feel drawn to; in those forms of collaboration that- in some ways they're clear cut, in some ways they're pretty obvious; so that this person was working for the Security Police, and so this is pretty obvious. But to not just leave it at that, and not just leave it at saying 'so and so worked for the Security Police', but to try and understand why this person did that; and to do that as a way of saying, for me to make sense of why this person would take this kind of job or would do this kind of thing, I first have to in some ways cut race down to analytical size so that it's not just an easy case of saying 'this is a collaborator because it happens to be a black person working for the Security Police'. Because I think what we do all too often in our work on South African history is to, in some ways, leave race unexplained; but leave it unexplained in ways that just assumes that if someone is black and they're working for the police then automatically they're a collaborator. And I think that jump is too easy, but it doesn't actually explain anything. And so, what I try and do is to say 'you know what? Let's start from the assumption that race itself, to state the obvious, is a construct'; it's a construct that is constantly in the making but also constantly under contest. What it means to be black is never a subtle question; and this of course applies to any other category. This is never a subtle question. So, rather than look at black faces in the Security Police as faces of collaboration, we might want to look at what these faces tell us about the meaning of blackness or the multiplicity of understandings. Because quite a few of the people that I speak to who worked for the Security Police did so because they believed in the project. You speak to some of these former homeland bureaucrats, so people will staffed those institutions of balkanization; they believed that, they believed that through the Transkei you could create a Xhosa homeland, you could create a Xhosa nation state, etc, etc. And we have to take that seriously. You don't have to agree with it politically, but taking it seriously and asking ourselves 'okay, so what does this tell us about our own assumptions about race and what sort of loyalties race determines?'. I think these are questions that we need to ask, and I don't know if enough of us asking those questions.
 
Tamar: Well, it's difficult because the politics of race now have- it's a weird thing, isn't it, in South Africa? I'm always distressed by the way in which we seem to be doing apartheid's work for it in the sense that we were racialised under apartheid by the invention of these categories, not only in South Africa, but in very specific ways as you so well know in South Africa. And it always startles me that these categories remain operative. And I know that some people would say 'oh, well, you're going back to the fantasy of some kind of rainbow-Kumbaya-nonracial-whatever world, that that's a thing of the past, and we are where we are'. But people still use these concepts as if they are natural concepts, rather than historically inventions. And then what we do with that as historical workers is obviously very interesting, but also extremely unsettling often; one gets positioned as somebody who is not really understanding the power politics of today because you refuse to use those categories.
 
Jacob: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I think part of it has to do with the approach taken at the formal end of apartheid; the approach taken that we would introduce affirmative action, that we would introduce employment equity. Which essentially transformed the struggle against apartheid into a civil rights struggle, whereby what you were fighting for would essentially be extension of basic rights to the totality of the citizens. Whereas another way out I think might have been to say the institution at its core, South African society at its very core, is fundamentally corrupted; corrupted not just by racism that came with colonialism, that came with capitalism, but with the forms that our institutions had taken coming out of this history; and that what you needed to transform was society in its totality. This might sound romanticised and idealistic, but I think to think much more creatively about what transformation should mean after the end of apartheid than just thinking that 'what we need is a bigger black middle class, what we need are more black students at university'. Of course, these things are important, but using them as markers of our progress was, I think, a failure of the imagination. Because what we ended up doing- so with affirmative action as the most well-known example, was in some ways buttressing the black elite, that actually had been elite under apartheid. They were the people best placed to benefit from these changes. Patrice Motsepe, the richest black person in South Africa right now, he comes out of the homeland elite; this is someone who was adverse at the height of the struggling against apartheid and had nothing to do with the anti-apartheid stuff. But of course, he then becomes the black face of black entitlement, the black face of success after the end of apartheid because he's the richest black person, because of the changes that have come before. Meanwhile the gap between him, the richest black person in South Africa, and the poorest black person in South Africa, is as big if not bigger than it's ever been. So these for me are the failures of the imagination; where we had an opportunity -  limited I know; we make our own history but we don't choose the circumstances - but I think there are options that could have been taken but were not taken.
 
Tamar: Well, I mean you obviously are referring to the issue of class, which is so huge, and the other kinds of ways in which identity is fractured; and race of course is so overwhelming and powerful in South Africa that one sometimes can forget these other determinings factor. So, I think that that's really interesting. But what is interesting for me- I can hear political resonance and alignment with a lot of the younger people in South Africa who are so disillusioned with their parents’ generation, with the struggle generation; and yet the way in which race is mobilised in that generation is not the way in which you are comfortable with using it. I'm thinking of the Fallists and the way in which a certain kind of, you might say, racial essentialism, or a kind of strategic essentialism, is so operative in those debates. I'm interested to know how you navigate that position in relation to the younger generation now- those in their 20s, or whatever, who are the Fallists.
 
Jacob: Your question is absolutely crucial. But it's also I think allowing me in some ways to flag one of the new projects I'm trying to develop, because one of the many things that I've been struck by coming out of the Fallist movement in South Africa is the constant resort to trauma. So I've heard people mention political trauma- I couldn't tell you what that is, I mean, I think I know what people are referring to- I've heard people talk about the historic trauma; and this actually bothers me because, in some ways, this is the same generation that was born in the midst of a brutal, brutal and bloody civil war in South Africa; a civil war that people don't talk about; a civil war that between 1990-1994 claimed something like 12,000 lives. So, when I think about trauma this is what I want to go back to; the experience of that civil war, an experience that my family lived through. That, for me, is an important point to go back to, because for trauma I think to make sense, it has to be grounded, it has to be it has to be grouped; it has to be formed by a particular experience, not some ethereal sense of feeling wounded or feeling hurt. And of course, I'm not dismissing the transference of experience from one generation to another, I think this is important; and I think part of what the Fallists are doing is reminding us of the ways in which experience lives on from generation to generation. But where I get off the train with the Fallists is when they want to speak of a middle class trauma that comes from alienation, that comes from being in institutions where they are on account of their class backgrounds- middle class backgrounds- but then want to use a sense of generalised trauma in ways that obscure these real material experiences of trauma. So when I think about traumas- this is the work I'm trying to develop- I want to go back to that experience of that civil war and to talk to people who lived through it as combatants, lived through it as victims - and sometimes it's both combatants and victims - and say 'let's talk about what this means to you, let's talk about how you understand this experience', and then have that be a part of the conversation. Because it is telling to me that in dismissing Mandela's generation, for example, and then calling him a sell-out and a collaborator, and at the same time talking about black trauma, that what the Fallists are doing - and of course there are exceptions, this is not a monochromatic movement, it's a complicated movement - but ebbing on the whole there is this dismissiveness of the complexity of our own history, but also a blindness to some concrete historical cases that were lived through by people who, because they are working class, because they never got out of Katlehong- my hometown- because they never got out of these townships, can never be articulated in English, can never be articulated on the campus at UCT or advance. Because the people who are in a position to articulate this are not present in these moments.
 
Tamar: I think that's absolutely fascinating. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind. We were taught to think of that civil war as black on black violence, and not something that was manipulated by the apartheid regime, and so we saw it as another manifestation, didn't we? Or that's how we were taught to think about it, of a kind of white uber powerful manipulation. So that I think is really interesting to deal with that and expose it as a myth if it is a myth, and then see what's going on around that. So, I think that's very interesting and I'm fascinated to hear how you might do that. But another thing that also comes to mind in listening to you is that there is interesting work on intergenerational trauma that's going on in South Africa; I think of the work that Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is doing, for example, which I'm sure you are familiar with; and the work of - very, very interesting stuff - of Lukhanyo Calata, Fort Calata's son, who's written his book; or Chris Hani's daughter; and we now have the generation of the children of the struggle heroes dealing with their own pain and trauma, etc. And they become emblematic of a whole generation that's the age group really. So, you've got all of that, there are multiple levels in which to think about it. But the other one that came to mind actually when I was reading your work, and I'm not sure how much work has been done on this, is what is the trauma of the child of the collaborator or the passive bystander? So, there's interesting work that's come out in Germany or in Europe about the children of Nazi bystanders, etc. But I wonder if in South Africa there has yet been work done on what it is to be the child of the collaborator or bystander. And I wonder whether that's something that you've thought about?
 
Jacob: I'm not aware of any work that has been done on this. I did try to do some work on this, in part because I thought this would be quite catchy but also quite interesting. So, one of the first people to be necklaced in the 1984 township uprisings was a man named Jacob Dlamini, who by all accounts was a horrible human being - corrupt, abusive...
 
Tamar: Your namesake? He has the same name as you?
 
Jacob: Absolutely, absolutely. This was in Sharpeville of all places. And he's likely one of the first people to be necklaced in 1984, and he's necklaced in part because there's a protest in Sharpeville because he, as a deputy mayor, has just raised rents. This was at the height of mass unemployment and people are poor, so there's a lot of unhappiness. But it's also coincidental to what's happening with the Tricameral and the reforms, etc, etc. And he pulls out a firearm, because all black councillors are issued with firearms when the protests start; and he pulls out the firearm and shoots and I think injures one of the protestors; and then that then becomes the spark, and he's necklaced. And I got interested; he's my namesake, but it's also Sharpeville which has all these multi-layers of epic violence, if we can call it that. But also, he's a family man, he had three kids, as I understand it, who were present when this happened, when their father was necklaced. One of the children lost his mind, the other became an alcoholic, and I never found out what happened to the third. The mother also lost her mind. I got interested in the story and I wanted to get close to the family to see if I could tell that story; that, in some ways, this is what it looks from the other side. And the family were not interested, and for reasons I can totally understand; they were not interested, I think part of it had to do with the fact that the one son who seemed to have made it out okay - and of course we can never know what psychic traumas he carries with him - I think it was that he was just focused on living, he was just focused on making it into the new South Africa, and the last thing he wanted was to be reminded, but also for people to be reminded that he's so and so's son. So, there was that. And then in Askari I write about Glory Sedibe, and there again, the price that his children have paid is massive - mental health issues, depression - same story with the widow. And there again I thought these are stories that I think have to be included in our conversations about the traumas of the past. And so, I've been drawn to some of the work that some scholars who are looking back at that moment of violence saying, 'was it necessary?'. And of course, Mandela in his autobiography makes the argument that we had no choice; but knowing what we now know about what that violence did, how it unleashed uncontrollable forces, I think it's a question worth asking. It's a question worth asking in light of what we know happened to people who suffered personally because of that violence.
 
Tamar: That's really interesting. I want to just stretch you in another direction, if you wouldn't mind, and that is just to think of your own position as a scholar, situated as you are within the American academy, which provides you with a very interesting viewpoint as a scholar of African history and of African origin, and sitting within the American academy and watching the Black Lives Matter movement unfold, as well as the theorisation of blackness as it now functions within the American academy; which seems to me to be very different than the way in which you think about the racialisation of blackness within the context of South Africa. So, I wanted to get your take on how you position yourself in relation to those debates - the ontology of blackness; the way that blackness is used now in a very, very particular way within American critical theory and critical literature; and the tendency amongst a lot of younger South African scholars to work with that language and with that vocabulary, 'black pain' being one of the foremost categories amongst them. How do you situate yourself in relation to those debates?
 
Jacob: So here this is where I think my debt to Paul Gilroy is most obvious. If there's one thing that I took from him when he was my teacher - in some ways I think it built on a scepticism or suspicion that I actually brought with me to the US - but if there's one thing that his teachings have taught me is this moral agency, but also moral need to be suspicious of race; to be open to its use for strategic political purposes, but also to be aware of its limits and limitations; to be aware of the dangers always inherent in race as a category of mobilisation, as an instrument of mobilisation. And so, this is how I look at the Black Lives Matter movement; that I am I think politically in support of it, but also aware of what I see as its limitations. One is the essentialising of blackness as a category; the American tendency to in some ways ethnicise blackness, so to transform blackness away from a political category into an ethnicity - that I'm suspicious of. And I'm suspicious of that because I think it collapses what is a complicated messy conglomeration of what blackness is. Think of migrants coming to the US- and it's also quite significant that many of the prominent black members or activists who are leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement are actually children of recent migrants to the US, from West Africa largely, but other parts of Africa. So that for me is quite interesting. I see this and then I appreciate it for what it is, but I also see the limitation of treating blackness as a simplified secular ethnicity, when it's actually not an ethnicity. And I don't think it should be an ethnicity. So there's that going on, but I'm also suspicious as a non-American of the tendency to take what's a US case and to make that a universal case about black struggles; which is where I then take issue with South Africans who want to buy willy-nilly into the Black Lives Matter project in the US in ways that align all kinds of fissures and contradictions within the South African project itself. So we have to ignore the- I mean, some of the criminal gaps between rich and poor, between middle class and poor in South Africa, in favour of articulating a position that makes it seem as if black lives matter and black lives matter the same way. And we know that there are differences and that these are differences that have as much to do with white supremacy as- I mean, I'm not in-conflating white supremacy to other forms of discrimination, but I think it's important to be alive to the differences within different black communities, so that we don't make it sound as if all black people are the same; which in some ways is a theme that is constant in my work because I'm constantly trying to caution against this assumption that every black person suffered under apartheid the same way, when we know that they did not, when we know that there were differences and they had to do with one's choices, they had to do with one's positionality, and they had to do with class a lot of the time.
 
Tamar: And one of the things that's so extraordinary about your work is the way in which you use the sources at your disposal, whether it's interviewing people or using archival sources, or working with photographs and material culture, reading against the grain looking at what they can't tell you as well as what they can tell you; this incredible rich engagement with the material history of the location that you're dealing with, which creates a kind of granularity and preciseness to the histories, and in fact flies in the face of these huge overriding generalising concepts. So that's so much a part of your work.
 
Jacob: Oh, absolutely. Thanks for that. I mean, I'm no positivist, right? I guess I was well trained in that sense, that I have this healthy scepticism towards the archive as archive. But at the same time, I know that there's something in there. There's something that one can work with, that one can use this to the extent that one can to shed light on some aspect of the past. Of course, archives by their very nature can never give us the full picture, but they do give us insight, they do give us openings that we can then chew. And so this is what draws me, and it's also I think a useful way to be able to go into the archive and come out with something that allows you to say 'well wait a second, here's the moment where race reaches its own limits, here's the moment where race helps explain this but not in total'. And that for me is something that I think I have to carry along at all times. But I also want to be able to tell stories that- I don't do this with Native Nostalgia, because that was a polemical piece, but I try and do this with the other work- to create openings that other scholars - better positioned, better equipped - can then pursue. So, what is it about black collaborators as a category that one can say meaningfully, that one can look at productively? And for that to happen, for that kind of work to happen, we have to move away from the moralising, we have to move away from the essentialising, and look at the granular, and look at the peculiarities. What is it about KwaZulu-Natal that allows for the development of a particular form of Zulu Afro-nationalism? Why is the same thing not happening among Zulu speakers in Gauteng? And it's not enough to say proletarianisation, it's not enough to say industrialisation helps explain it. I think there's something else going there. It's only by taking seriously what's available as embodied memories, what's available as documented texts, as archival material, as photography - what's available as memories - taking that seriously is what will create these openings that will allow which to gain a better understanding of our own history.
 
Tamar: One of the other things that I wanted to talk more with you about is, in The Terrorist Album, the roles that photographs play in a really interesting sense of what photographs don't tell us; because, as you say, you have to wrap them in words and you have to situate them and contextualise them in order to allow them to have an eloquence. And I find that very interesting. And I was struck by the thinking with the album as a kind of bureaucratic technology in its totality into which the photographs - which are actually singularly uninformative- I was struck by how many times people didn't recognise themselves. And I'm aware of that, as are you, I'm sure if you look at an old passport photograph you think 'god, is that me? It doesn't look like me'. Photographs are actually really bad, and often particularly mugshots, are really bad at telling us what we look like and telling others what we look like. So, the complete fallaciousness at the heart of this identificatory edifice is so fascinating.
 
Jacob: Yeah, so I have been thinking, for example, I'd be quite keen to know what you make of my claim that photographs are mute.
 
Tamar: I think it's an interesting question because I think that they're mediated representations, so they speak in relation to the context within which they sit. They aren't, in my view, in themselves pregnant with meaning. They depend very much on the culture of mediation; and mugshots in particular, mugshots are in my view a very impoverished form of photographic language because they can only speak with the edifice - whether it's colonial or whether it's incarceral or whether it's legislative or whatever kind of economy - that determines the way they're read. And they are extremely formulaic as you know. And all the photographs in the book, except for one or two, what is articulate is the formula- the formula is what speaks, rather than the individual iteration.
 
Jacob: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. And of course, this can't be the last word on the album. It can't be the last word on the subject. So, I'm hoping that photographic historians will come along and do something richer. I know there's some people I've met doing work in the digital arts, I'm hoping that they'll come along and say, 'here's an opening, let's work with the skill-sets that we have'.
 
Tamar: Thank you, we could go on for hours and hours; I have a list of things I'm still dying to engage with you.
 
Jacob: Yeah, yeah.
 
Tamar: Thank you so much for talking with me today. It's been really, really fascinating to hear your sense of things now and I really look forward to following the work down the line.
 
Jacob: And, Tamar, thank you so, so much for your support over the years. And thanks for your time, I’ve truly enjoyed our conversation. Thank you.