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Transcript: In conversation with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela


Tamar Garb: Hello my name is Tamar Garb, I'm Professor of Art History at University College London and I'm a member of the advisory group of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation. Today it's my great pleasure to welcome a colleague, collaborator, friend - Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela - to converse with me about her work and about her recent interventions into a very febrile and difficult political and social landscape in South Africa. Pumla holds the Chair in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University; and this itself is significant as, for those of you who don't know about Stellenbosch, it's important to recognise that Stellenbosch was the intellectual and spiritual home of apartheid ideology; it educated the elites of white supremacist thinking and its Theology and Philosophy departments across the university, and the so-called 'architect of apartheid' Hendrik Verwoerd was educated there. So, it was regarded as the centre of Afrikaner nationalism throughout the apartheid years; and I think that Pumla's position in relation to that university where she is placed and the vantage point she has from which to view transformation and the difficulty of the transformational project is very, very interesting. Pumla trained in psychology, and one of her great gifts to us has been to turn her understanding of human behaviour, built on an immersion in social psychology and psychoanalysis, to bear on the ongoing threat and challenge of racism, and particularly the intergenerational inheritance of trauma and the violence and ongoing violence and violation that racism does. Her publication list is extensive, I won't go through it; just wanted to mention her very famous and foundational book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, which was published in 2003, which interweaves her own personal experience as a black South African with her encounter through interviews with Eugene De Kock, who was known as "Prime Evil", and he headed up the South African security operations at a notorious place called Vlakplaas and beyond; and this was the notorious site of many apartheid-era atrocities. And in the subtitle of that book Pumla includes the word 'forgiveness', and this is a word that she has engaged with throughout her career in interesting ways; and I hope that we will be able to talk about that a little bit today; it's one of the themes to which Pumla returns in countless books and essays- amongst others- around trauma, intergenerational inheritance and resistance, testimony, empathy, empathic repair - one of the concepts she's recently worked with - etc. Pumla, I'm so excited to have this opportunity to talk with you. Thank you so much for giving your time to engage with us.
 
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Thank you, Tamar.
 
Tamar: I wanted to start with a recent article that you published in the South African newspaper, the Daily Maverick; you talk in a very upsetting way, really, about the resurgence - the ugly resurgence - of what you call 'white racism' in South Africa, particularly amongst young people. And I wondered whether you'd start to tell us a little bit about what you think is going on there, and is this something new? Is it a continuation of past patterns? How would you characterise or categorise what you think of as 'white racism' now?
 
Pumla: One of the critical observations to make about this is that it's happening at the level of younger people- the younger generation; just repeatedly stories that you hear in the public domain of racism; young people calling out black people as 'kaffirs'- the 'K-word' in South Africa. This has been really something quite striking; it's striking only because the expectation is that after 1994 young people who are white, who have grown up in the post-apartheid period do not have any of the influence of apartheid or racism from their parents; that's the assumption. But what we are witnessing, repeatedly, is that actually it seems to be so much more emphasised now among the younger white generation. And here is why I think it is going on: I think that white people today have more opportunity to engage with black people; perhaps not of their own choosing - the policies of the country, the constitution as it stands, calls for transformation; and there are laws across the board for the corporates, for universities, education- there are laws that command, that demand, that all of these places 'transform'. And the way to do that is to diversify these institutions, in other words, to open up the doors of these institutions to black people, places that used to be for whites only. Schools, for example, that were white-only schools have now become the so-called Model C schools, which was a particular type of model that transformed white-only schools to somewhere between a government school and a private school so that black people can afford; these schools are governed by school governing bodies, the members of whom are mostly white. So, young white people are, in a way, forced to be in spaces with black people in ways that their parents never had a chance to. At the same time, however, they bring their notions of superiority to these spaces. And here is the thing: the contradiction between how they want to see themselves as these superior whites, with the reality of their experience, which is that they see constantly black people driving in luxury cars; black people living in the same neighbourhoods; black people acting in ways that portray a sense of power, a sense of confidence - now that contradicts their worldview. It is those white people who believe in superiority. And what's interesting, actually, is that the distinction here is not between right-wing and left-wing; it's a sense of self, it's a sense of how young white people want to see themselves. That place of being in that position of superiority has got a lot of power, so that even for young people there's an understanding that 'I'm better than you- you may be bright, you may be driving a luxury car, but I'm actually better than you by virtue of my whiteness'. But this causes a dissonance in their world view, in their minds; and so, often, because this sometimes is so deeply ingrained at the level of the unconscious, the way that it plays out is that it lashes out in ways that are supposed to be counteracting this feeling of inferiority for the white person themselves because now they've got to constantly fight the reality that actually 'I'm not superior, I'm not experiencing my life as being superior to the black person next to me'. So, the play of all of this complexity that ravages the mind comes out in these violent ways; and the racism is a manifestation of these complex emotions, of this fight, of this effort to fight this sense of dissonance within the self.
 
Tamar: So, do you think that the dream that our generation had of a non-racial desegregated society, that would enable the humanity of all - I mean, those very classrooms of which we could only dream growing up as we did in apartheid South Africa - do you think that that dream, in a sense, was built on a kind of naïve hope for a non-racial democracy and that somehow we didn't understand what was going to be unleashed? How do you relate what you see as the landscape in which young people are growing up now, with that utopian vision of a desegregated, non-segregated society that was so important to the founding parents of the ANC generation?
 
Pumla: I think what's important about the dynamic of the past is that there was something very clear to fight about; apartheid was the evil, it was the enemy, and it was something to fight against. And so it united black and white; if you look at students - this now is despite the black consciousness movement that emerged - but there was a genuine sense of something to fight about; if you look at images of organised student movements in the 1960s, late-1960s, you see large numbers of white students protesting, gathering to protest; you don't see that today. And in those days there was something that people wanted to change; now that that change has happened, something else has emerged and the something else that has emerged is the absence of the education of young people today about the importance of that solidarity that we experienced during our time. There was a real desire, and it was not even an empty kind of hope, there was a real genuine sense of 'this is possible'. And in many cases, it actually was possible; there were instances where you could see the connection between black and white and in this ideal of building something that is possible and can happen. Today, however, it's a little fuzzy; apartheid is gone, and so what is happening today is that what becomes pronounced is the experience of young white people being excluded. For instance, both the language and the experience is that of a feeling of exclusion. Whiteness now is the privileged class, and because it is the privileged class, they are unable to have entry into universities in the way that it was easy before; now they've got to fight and sometimes they are rejected because now the space is not as large as it was- it was reserved; reservation for whites in schools, in job reservations- every settle of society. If your father or mother was an accountant at a famous firm you knew if you chose accounting that's where you're going- Deloitte or whatever other big company, you are assured of that place. But now that kind of assurance no longer exists; and so, the conversations around the table are conversations that are angry conversations at the current situation. And what that instils in the consciousness of white people growing up today is that 'we do not count anymore'. So, what they are ending up with is their whiteness; and because even those edifices of the superiority of whiteness are being broken down every day in their experiences, it's a contradiction of what they feel, what they believe they are, and the reality out there in the world. So, all of these entanglements of these contradictory emotions and reality yields this violence; this is what is going on today.
 
Tamar: But what's so depressing about what you're saying, besides the manifestation of the violence and how people have to live with that, is that it speaks to a society that remains as segregated as ever; and all those ideas that we might have had that proximity, friendship, love, sexual encounters would break down those old racialised boundaries seem not to have worked. The way in which you describe the society it seems as if there are still - for the most part, of course there are exceptions - these coherent categories of white groups and black groups as if these are determined identities rather than historically reproduced and institutionally entrenched categories.
 
Pumla: The proximity today is a blessing and a curse. We bring groups together in order to pursue the goal of transformation. What's happened as I have witnessed in all of the universities I've been to - UCT, Bloemfontein University of the Free State, and now at Stellenbosch University - and what I see there is something that we really need to pay attention to; the value of proximity, the value of bringing black and white students together in these residences at these universities is that you may achieve transformation; at least, this is the goal. What happens instead is that the black students who come to these institutions come with excitement; these were universities that their parents could only dream of; now they are there, and many of them come from poor backgrounds, low socioeconomic backgrounds. Now they come to these universities feeling excited that they've arrived at these institutions of higher learning- learning that was reserved for whites; and then once they settle in - and it takes a matter of months, two or three months - they know that they came here from poor backgrounds and many of them are here because of all these funding opportunities by the government or other funding agencies. And then they experience the relationships with white students, and other black students, who come from wealthy backgrounds; and usually it's mostly the white students who drive in cars, they drive in and out, they can stay as long as they want and leave at 10pm just before the library closes. But, the black students at these universities are at a disadvantage because for them they've got to catch probably two taxis and a train, and they've got to leave early enough to catch the last train; that already puts them at a disadvantage. And so, increasingly, they realise how poor they are- they knew that they're poor but they realise now that they're in proximity - this is now the problem of proximity - they become so much more aware of their poverty and again the dynamic that I described earlier of shame and anger emerges at the level of these students. And they ugly thing about this is that because whiteness remains a standard, whatever that perception of whiteness- for instance, if a white student called a black student a kaffir or excludes them in whatever way in class by not recognising them or by disregarding them, then that gaze - that white gaze - on the black students is taken as the truism that this is who I am, and this is what becomes internalised. And because this gaze of the student who is coming from the position of superiority and power is so important in the minds of our society and the societal thinking and societal worldview, whiteness still remains the standard; and this is something that we really need to pay attention to.
 
Tamar: And this is what you do so very cleverly in that article, where you talk about what you call 'black fragility'. So, it's not only that the lives that these students lead are precarious in a practical sense, and you describe very eloquently the commuting and the way of life of people who have to manage in situations that sometimes can be very stretched, and poverty, and all sorts of other determinants. But there's something that you describe psychically that goes on about the internalisation of the projection of inferiority from an outside community. Can you say a little bit more about that psychic formation and why you think it's so important to think with these psychic categories in order to explain social phenomena?
 
Pumla: The psychoanalytic perspective is very useful here in helping us understand what racism is about, and I talked about this at the beginning. From the side of the black person who's receiving this slur or this negative gaze from someone who perceives themselves as superior, they take in this perception as if it is the truth; from the perspective of the white person calling a black person a kaffir or calling them whatever verbal call or just the gaze itself - a dehumanising gaze - that for them is also an etching out of their own shame that they cannot deal with the actual feeling of inferiority. So, what do they do? They draw on the knowledge that whiteness is understood as superior, even though they may not feel so. And so, the projection is actually of the feeling of being less than by the white person; they know that if they throw this word at a black person, they know its impact, so it's impact is designed precisely to make the black person feel smaller, even if they are not smaller. I talk about this as 'black fragility' because it's a lack of recognition that what the white person is doing is actually trying to make the black person feel smaller; and so, because of the power of the projection, because of the power of racism, and psychologically because of what is understood as being superior than what the black person is, there is a tendency in responding to this as if actually this is who I am. It's that sense of a self-consciousness of inferiority, even though you are not necessarily inferior. I've seen this so many times when black people are actually superior to the person who is throwing out the slur, and yet, the reaction, whether it is in social media- we've seen it in South Africa, some young white person, who is unemployed is frustrated because they can't get a job, swears or insults and calls black people the 'C-word' or 'K-word', and then the person reacts, the person who is actually commanding power in their role starts sending out these tweets or records this and sends it out; and that I call the mark of black fragility.
 
Tamar: But I wonder whether you wouldn't agree that it's not only in the case of the kind of of violent assault where one can see an action, a reaction and a kind of explosive encounter which can move beyond the rational. Do you not think that actually it's so systemic that you don't need necessarily to be abused and insulted verbally? Because entering into the edifice of, say, Stellenbosch University or UCT with the architecture, the symbolism, the buildings - that in itself can produce a kind of assault. Do you need the insult, or do you think that there's something in the fabric of the society that still produces what you call black fragility?
 
Pumla: That is so important. So, the way that we should understand these processes is not only in unitary or explanatory understandings. It's complex. That too matters- the buildings, the establishment. This issue of the building is so critical; you enter into Stellenbosch, the walls are white- they're white in colour, but there's also something about the actual structure of the buildings that exude this whiteness, and with it exude the history of oppression and all that it carries from apartheid. And there's so many stories, I have to tell you this one: when I first arrived in Stellenbosch, it was just at the beginning of the second wave of student protests in early 2016. I had several conversations with students at the time, one which really captures what you're talking about very poignantly. The student says - and I won't give a much larger context for the sake of brevity - the student says 'whenever I come to Stellenbosch, when I enter the gates of Stellenbosch, I have to kill myself; every time I enter I have to kill myself; and every afternoon when I prepare to return home, I have to resurrect myself; I enter the first taxi and I have to resurrect myself, the second taxi I have to resurrect another part of myself' - and so, that sense of having to die in order to be accepted in this establishment; and this is before anyone says anything. So, that's one part of it. However, I do think that dealing with these kinds of issues we have to recognise that whiteness is a very powerful structure in itself, and as we work with transformation we also have to recognise that these are not just external, these are very much internal; the battle has to happen at the level of the internal. And so, if we remove all of the external, even if we stop people calling others kaffir or any other kinds of swear words, if we don't look at this as dynamics that are deeply entrenched and deeply seated in the unconscious of both black and white students, then we're going to miss what is going on. And this is why we are struggling so much today because we are not addressing the deeper internal level. What has to happen is that- I mean, I love rituals, I think rituals are so important. I think a place like Stellenbosch or University of Cape Town at the beginning of the year there have to be these rituals that recognise the power of these buildings as structures that exude the history, that bear the history from the past. Rituals of cleansing - because sometimes rituals can also be internalised, something that happens in the exterior, doesn't have to be anything elaborate, it's really a recognition that these histories are deeply internalised and they are carried by the next generations into their own lives as they interact and engage at the societal level. So, dealing with this requires creativity, imagination of ways in which we might actually deal with this, because if you have a ritual then that ritual becomes the marker of a moment in my life here at Stellenbosch where I reclaim my right to be here as a black person, as a South African; this place belongs to me as much as it belongs to you as a white student. So, those rituals of reclaiming the space is what I think needs to happen so that both black and white people recognise that now we are entering a new phase. And, of course, they've got to also occur at the same time as conversations or dialogue about all of the other transformative processes that are instituted within our constitution or Bill of Rights about change and transformation, so that white students can embrace these as well as aspects of our transition, of our moment of change, and that they actually will help them to become better people. So, these are new ways that we have to embrace in dealing with the project of changing our society.
 
Tamar: What's so interesting about listening to you and listening to the way in which you use psychoanalytic theory - and obviously, your own immersion over time in trauma theory and looking at other difficult histories and other difficult pasts - it makes me want to ask you a little bit about where you position yourself now in relation to a lot of the theoretical literature that has informed your thinking. A lot of your early writing has really taken on board trauma theory in relation to the Holocaust; so much of that work is around Europe's painful history and the annihilation of the Jews, and you've worked with so many people who've thought with those concepts. But you've also talked in your recent writing about why, as important as those are, they are not always adequate to the South African situation. So, I would like to hear you say a little bit about how you position yourself in relation to that body of literature; you've taken on Hannah Arendt, for example, even in the subtitle to one of your texts you say why Hannah Arendt was wrong- this in relation to Eichmann and the concept of forgiveness. So, there's the whole Arendtian tradition, there's the trauma theory tradition, which you are so immersed in, and yet you want to resist. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
 
Pumla: Historically, in terms of my work, you're right. It begins with a reflection on the critical role of forgiveness; and that was very intentional. When I arrived at this juncture of thinking about our past, when I was beginning to think about our past as South Africans, the language of reconciliation was dominating our discourse. At the same time, in the early 1990s there was beginning to develop a very strong scholarship around testimony; Holocaust testimony, testimony by victims of the Holocaust, and that whole body of work that has emerged from the Yale video testimony project that was led by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, that literary scholars and psychoanalysts have used as a stepping stone for thinking about the trauma of the Holocaust. At the same time in the 1990s, we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and while we were using that scholarship as a touchstone for understanding what was happening in our own context, there emerged for me a challenge to this body of work. And the challenge was that something is happening here in South Africa that no one in the scholarship of the Holocaust has talked about, because it did not happen; and what was happening in South Africa was the engagement between victim and perpetrator in a way that was very unique. It was an engagement that was about living together. The engagement during the Holocaust was about an engagement of prosecuting, and rightly so; Jewish people had left Europe, and so it was prosecuting the criminals. Here was a moment where we were reflecting on how do we live together and this is very, very important and a lot of people missed this; how do we live together despite what has happened? And so, the language of forgiveness and forgiving emerged from that conversation and that's why I began writing my work as a challenge to the scholarship on the impossibility of forgiveness, which is what was kind of the standard perception at that time; and there were very clear examples of forgiveness. My position at that time was very much celebratory about this language, about these moments. Over the 10 years period when I started turning, I started revising my thinking about this, I began to see that this language is very limited; the language, the syntax of forgiveness is the wrong words to use in this context. What is important for us to understand is perhaps to theorise less about forgiveness, but rather about the possibility of the coming together of people from different sides of history. In other words, the possibility that we might be able to build a sense of solidarity, despite our past. And I've come to understand that this actually is important for us because forgiveness turns people off, and in fact sometimes people say forgive when it means different things; and when the word is used often from the perspective of those who were perpetrators or those who benefited from the past, it's really to mean 'let's forget the past, let's move on and forget the past'. What I've found here rather is that the word actually tries to capture a sense that 'I can live with my trauma, I can live side-by-side my trauma and I can tell a different narrative; now that I have encountered you as the perpetrator with your sense of remorse and your sense of recognition that what you have done has hurt and destroyed my family, I am able to take this step, the first step, to hold your hand into the future'. It's really about that possibility, that the language is about the possibility. The rest of the work, as I say in my new work, is about repair, it's the work of repair; that first step of forgiving is that first step of just the possibility. It's interesting to me that even Hannah Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, after she read my work and really began to reflect on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she too used the language of Hannah Arendt being wrong because she said- well, she had to be polite- she said Hannah may have been wrong; but that in itself is important. And so this idea of repair, the notion of repair, just in the understanding of something that is a process rather than forgiveness, which is sort of terminal- 'I've forgiven, I leave this behind me', whereas repair challenges us to look into doing something every day, to be reflective every day. The reparative, the notion of the reparative, suggests that idea of movement forward, that this is an attempt to repair; this is a reparative humanism, we are building, it's an ethic, it's a new kind of ethic which is very different from the language that has an end point- reconciliation, there's a goal to reconcile, to forgive. Here it's an opening of a journey rather than the shutting down and reaching a goal. And that really is important. Also, when you think about how trauma is trans-generationally transmitted in whatever form it is passed on, that process of repair- as we're dealing today with racism, the resurgence of racism which manifests at the level of young white people, it means that every generation we have to constantly recognise that this too has to be worked through by this generation.
 
Tamar: Well, that's so, so interesting and powerful, actually, to hear. Reading your work around this I'm very struck by the way you use the words 'empathic repair'; and just to finish our conversation - we could go on for ages but I know that time is limited - so, I wanted you to think just briefly about the new turn in your work to look at the aesthetic and art-based practices as a site through which the processes of empathic repair can be articulated and enacted. You've written very beautifully, for example, about Philip Miller's cantata, which takes on the cry of Nomonde Calata - one of the widows of the Cradock Four, the widow of Fort Calata - who I think you write about how the sound of her cry, the sound of her pain which resonated over the hearings of the TRC then becomes a kind of recurrent motif that is broken up and played with and re-articulated in such a beautiful way by singers in Philip Miller's piece; and you write about that and other artworks. So, could you tell us how you think that the aesthetic might be a site for the kind of reparative humanism of which you speak?
 
Pumla: So, there are two ways that I use the notion of the aesthetic. One has to do with a re-reading of the testimonies of the TRC; in other words, a reading back to the past and looking at the language of a testimony to rethink the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a kind of a moment that can be reinterpreted in different ways. For instance, in what ways might just a testimony of a perpetrator who talks about killing an anti-apartheid activist, putting their body on a pier and burning them for nine hours and throwing them into the rivers of the Eastern Cape- in what way might we read that as a story that goes beyond what is said in words? Just the act of burning a body for nine hours - first of all, whether that is true or not is another part of the story. So, burning the body- if you look at that as a kind of an image we imagine, as a kind of an aesthetic moment that allows us to imagine it either as a performance of something that is difficult to put in words or as a foretelling of something that awaits us in the future. And so, I use the notion of aesthetic then to suggest that what we missed at the TRC was that these stories are so powerful as aesthetics; presenting us with the possibility of interpreting them in these kinds of ways that can foretell the violence that is going to happen, because if you look at just the story of a perpetrator who says 'I burnt the body' or 'I shot them into the grave and buried the body into some secret grave'; and you think about that grave and the body that couldn't speak because they were thrown in there as an embodiment of a story that remains untold- it remains buried; and the possibility of such a story bursting out from this grave and issuing out from being resurrected from the depths of the soul into a visible form of violence and violation; that's how I'm reading the aesthetics, that's how I'm using this notion on the one hand. On the other hand, art itself that comes out of this work is very powerful. You referred to Philip Miller's TRC cantata- a powerful, powerful story that is retold through music by just the inimitable way that Philip does this work. And in that work, what I do - I'm not sure whether Philip likes this - but I speak about his work as perhaps a moment that speaks through his own trauma. Now, here lies a possibility that while it may be his own trauma - and, of course, I'm taking liberties here - it's a trauma that I want to understand as a trauma coming from a place of someone who carries their own shame and trauma; and if we apply that to whiteness, for instance, as beneficiaries of apartheid privilege, if we look at art as a possibility or moment through which all of these conversations can be had about the past, the power of talking through artworks about shame, guilt, pain, suffering, so that all of these emotions are encapsulated in this image, in this artwork. And as we gather around it, we are gathering to bring our stories, whatever they are- whether they're stories of guilt, of shame, of pain and suffering, and that the space of this artwork is a space that contains all our stories; and that's the power of the artwork because it does have that possibility that while we are imagining or beholding a work of art that speaks to the past or that is created based on the past, it allows us to language all of these complicated emotions that we carry, that are unspeakable, that we are ashamed of verbalising; but here they lie in this artwork. And one such artwork is Judith Mason's The Blue Dress; now, the making of The Blue Dress is very much of purpose here because she makes The Blue Dress while she is listening to the story of a woman who was shot and tortured- severely tortured by the police, and because she wouldn't work for the state she was literally driven to her grave; they walked her to a grave that was dug up, had her stand in front of the grave and shot and killed her in the grave, and she was covered up. Judith Mason resurrects her, she resurrects this body in this disembodied form of this dress that's made out of this blue plastic because she had covered her genital area with a blue plastic bag that we assume she picked up from the room as she was naked when they tortured her. Judith Mason builds this up; it is that idea of resurrecting not just the story itself and retelling it in a different way, which means something for her, but she resurrects it in order for us now to relate to this story, and to relate with it through our own engagements, through our own projections and identifications with this story. So, in that space of telling the story there are lots of these identifications, depending where you position in relation to this story, as well as the projections that take place within this space. So, the power of the aesthetics- we have not taken advantage of it enough; in this next phase of our work we will be doing just that.
 
Tamar: Well, it has been an immense privilege and a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to seeing the work that comes out of that project and to ongoing conversation and thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me.
 
Pumla: Thanks so much to you, Tamar. And you know how important you are for our own conversations and we're so grateful that you always make yourself available to help us think through. So, thank you very, very much; I appreciate it.
 
Tamar: Thank you so much.