The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgivenessby Wole Soyinka
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka considers all of Africa - indeed, all the world - as he poses the question: Once repression stops, is reconciliation between oppressor and victim possible? In the face of centuries long devastations wrought on the African continent and her Diaspora by slavery, colonialism, Apartheid and the manifold faces of racism, what form of recompense… See more details below
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Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka considers all of Africa - indeed, all the world - as he poses the question: Once repression stops, is reconciliation between oppressor and victim possible? In the face of centuries long devastations wrought on the African continent and her Diaspora by slavery, colonialism, Apartheid and the manifold faces of racism, what form of recompense could possibly be adequate? In a voice as eloquent and humane as it is forceful, Soyinka examines this fundamental question as he illuminates the principle duty and "near intolerable burden" of memory to bear the record of injustice. In so doing, he challenges notions of simple forgiveness, of confession and absolution, as strategies for social healing. Ultimately, he turns to art as one source that may nourish the seed of reconciliation, art as the generous vessel that can hold together the burden of memory and the hope of forgiveness.
The New York Times Book Review
"Robust with extensive allusions to politics, religion, history, and, of course, literature....Soyinka's quest in this book is for true restitution for all the moral and material wrongs done to Africa, whether through slavery or colonialism, whether by the West or the East."San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
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The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness
By Wole Soyinka
Oxford University PressCopyright ©2000 Wole Soyinka
All right reserved.
In the 1992 presidential elections, it would appear that the United States stood a reasonable chance of acquiring a new president in the person of a certain Mr. David Duke. Who knows, it may yet happen. No, perhaps we should consider it unlikely; but the state of Louisiana may eventually settle on him as its governor or reward his industry with a senatorial seat--Mr. Duke appears quite determined to move into the power structure at some level or another. For the moment, however, he may be said to have declined into a state of well-earned obscurity in the United States. Not elsewhere though; not in Germany where, a few years ago, it was reported that he had made his presence felt in familiar ideological territory. Even more recently, Mr. Duke appears to have sought a new lease on life in South Africa.
What is remarkable about Mr. Duke and his bid to represent the Republican party as a presidential candidate? Simply that many Americans were startled to learn that he was a prominent and still active member of the Ku Klux Klan. He lost at the primaries of course, but his loss in the governorship race was a narrow one, and that fact remains a frightening reminder of the yet unconcluded business of racism, not only in theUnited States, but in much of Europe and the recently desegregated society of apartheid South Africa. After Mr. Duke's political setbacks in his own country, he cavorted briefly with the neo-Nazis and skinheads in Germany but found that the Germans, eager to renounce and distance themselves from any glorification of their shameful past, wisely kept him--in the main--at arm's length.
His invasion of South Africa has been very different. It is Mr. Duke's confident plunge--and we cite him only as an illustrative case--into that yet simmering cauldron of racism that presents us here with some uncomfortable ramifications of South Africa's ongoing strategies for the reconciliation of that society and, by extension, the reconciliation of races.
Was the mission of Mr. Duke in South Africa by any chance to promote the cause of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission? No. Very much the contrary. Duke was visiting that country to express solidarity with a self-declared independent Free Boer Republic--inspired perhaps by the American Freemen enclave?--which had resolved that apartheid may be officially outlawed in the new South Africa but its extreme right-wing members, densely located in a town royally named Balmoral, had different ideas of what the relationship between races should be. A trace has revealed that some of these defenders of the white American way of life, the so-called Freemen movement, are none other than offshoots of the Ku Klux Klan who have merely exchanged the ludicrous (but once lethal!) duncehead garb of the KKK for the macho camouflage from military surplus stores.
We do not know yet for certain, but it is not taking undue liberty with probability to suggest that Mr. Duke would hardly depart from South Africa without establishing a few branches of the Ku Klux Klan. Even if he does not, his presence at this time will undoubtedly inspire the creation of chapters modeled, with a few Boer-culture variations, on the midnight riders of the Deep South ancien regime. In any case, boosting his mission, and such mimic tendencies, was an independent donation of several million dollars, the gift of an obscure but compassionate Southern lady to the white enclave to enable it to sustain its existence of defiance of black majority rule and the defense of a white supremacist culture now menaced, in the imagination of its proponents, by the barbaric hordes of a liberated race.
Now, the country of which Mr. Duke is a citizen--and president manque--has a discriminatory list of human types to which it would not grant entry through its borders--such a list once included communists (also apartheid South Africa's bogey). Today, the list includes drug traffickers, hard-core criminals, and terrorists. Would one exaggerate by claiming that the Klu Klux Klan can be classified as a terrorist organization? Mr. Duke preaches a less virulent form of Klanism, we are informed, but the difference is one of those subtle shades that must be considered lost on actual victims of racism anywhere.
The U.S. media, as well as the government, were also in an uproar over a million-dollar donation made to Minister Farrakhan's movement by the Libyan government--there was no way he was going to be permitted to bring that terrorist money into the United States! Yet here was a U.S. citizen pouring her millions into a cause that must be considered treasonable--or at the least subversive--in a foreign, sovereign state. To the best of our information, the South African government has not raised a squeak. Surely, the United States, by any yardstick, must be considered a far less fragile society than South Africa. Its democracy has been tested and proved durable. Which of these two nations, shall we say, is pursuing a rational policy? How far can a nation stretch a policy of accommodation? Of these two nations, which, in short, has a greater justification for policies and actions that may be dictated by a touch of paranoia?
These questions have become pertinent in view of South Africa's mainly laudable project of reaching out toward even the proven deniers and enemies of a common humanity. If the new nation had chosen to adopt a different policy toward the past, one that is diametrically opposed to the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation, is it conceivable that Mr. Duke would have dared to even think of visting South Africa on a business mission, much less on one that makes no disguise whatsoever of traveling on the bandwagon of the gospel of hate? The contingent dramas of Truth and Reconciliation will mostly be played out, alas, outside the confines of the actual chambers where these hearings are held and beyond their actual duration. They will not always be as blatant as Mr. Duke's foray but, by often imperceptible motions, they will owe their eruption to spores of the same plant of a national forbearance that offers as much potential for social good and healing as it does for abuse and the enthronement of a cult of impunity. For there will always be those who read in these proceedings only a justification of any crimes, however heinous, as long as they can claim alliegiance to some form of private or collective belief, exigencies of state, or race/sect solidarity.
There are many such implications for a policy--of which South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an instrument--for which there appears to be no built-in mechanism for a mandatory reciprocity. Knowledge, or information, is, however, a social virtue that carries a potential for prevention or social alertness, and this may actually counterbalance the risks inherent in a project that appears to dispense with the principle of restitution in historic accounting. But is knowledge on its own of lasting effect? Or is it simply that memory is short? Events in today's Nigeria, the escalating confidence of state terrorism, and wholesale erosion of human rights, ought, surely, to recall the trajectories of prior monstrosities on a continent's power landscape, their capacity for unthinkable atrocities. The unsavory ends of such rulers should serve as a lesson for their emulators, but somehow they never do. Anyone would think that Macias Nguema of Equitorial Guinea never existed, the voodoo tyrant who came to a grisly demise at the end of a rope. Then there was Master-Sergeant Doe over whom I proved a poor prophet because I had actually predicted for him the fate that finally overtook Macias Nguema (The Apotheosis of Master-Sergeant Doe); he died a far more squalid death, butchered piecemeal by one faction of the would-be liberators of Liberia.
Emperor-for-Life Jean Bedel Bokassa was probably the most colorful of the lot, an imperial infanticide whose fate was surely a case of efficacious African juju--a la "Emperor Jones"--since he came back, of his own seeming volition, to the scene of his crimes and ended his days in one of the dingy cells into which, for personal diversion, he would lead his palace guards and trample alleged felons to death. His most notorious feat, however (apart from hammering a journalist into submission with a weighted end of a swagger stick at a public press conference), was his murder of schoolchildren. They had had the temerity to reject school uniforms for which he and his family held the sole franchise. As a good schoolmaster should, he rounded up the wayward pupils, locked them in prison for instruction, and, assisted by his goons, administered corporal punishment. That several died from this dose of imperial discipline merely vindicated the biblical injunction, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."
I dedicated a scene to that unimaginable atrocity in the play Opera Wonyosi but, try as one may, no fictionalized form can ever rival, as an instrument of public instruction, the format of a public tribunal of whatever shape and informed by whatever principle--be it of reconciliation or retribution. I recall a dinner discussion with a very good friend that almost ended in fisticuffs over the case of our greatest butcher of his time, Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. Idi Amin, I had just remarked, was a practicing cannibal who actually kept the heads of his perceived enemies in his freezer for periodic contemplation. "Western propaganda!" my friend screamed. "How could you believe such preposterous fabrication?" In vain I tried to impress on him the reliability of my sources--which included children of African diplomats whom I had personally interviewed when I was editor of the magazine Transition. They were friends of Idi Amin's children with whom they sometimes exchanged visits--at least, until their parents' intervention. Nothing would shake the belief of my disputant that such a scourge of Western powers could not descend to such a level of barbarity--how else would the "Western press" be expected to take their revenge except by concoctions that showed African leaders as depraved beyond imagining?
The commission of inquiry that followed Idi Amin's departure has of course since revealed even more harrowing details of the last moments in the lives of Idi Amin's enemies and their resting places--if that expression may be thus misused. On that score alone, the necessity of such commissions is surely vindicated--to enthrone, once and for all, the desirable goal of Truth. Beyond Truth, the very process of its exposition becomes part of the necessity, and, depending on the nature of the past that it addresses, the impact it has made on the lives of the citizens and the toll it has taken on their sense of belonging, it may be regarded as being capable of guaranteeing or foundering the future of a nation. Indeed, it may be seen as a therapy against civic alienation. There is obviously a limit to the capabilities of even the most obsessed dramatist to transform public sensibilities toward the recognition of Truth, and, in any case, isn't the poor scribbler already tainted by his fictionalizing needs--select, distort, and exaggerate for effect? Not even the use of the actual stark, unvarnished dialogue (such as court proceedings) of a crime as in The Death of Steve Biko (Fenton and Blair) totally rescues the dramatist from suspicion of "making a case." The dramatist must still compress a hundred or more hours into two or three and thus must edit. Tribunals, even as printed documents, have the advantage of a current reality, and so--yes--this is a plea to African governments not to bury those documents in the musty archives of racial sensibilities. It is mandatory that we learn of the contents of Mobutu's Swiss vaults, but even more essential to national well-being and its capacity for transformation must be considered an exposition of the contents of Idi Amin's refrigerator! The Truth shall set you free? Maybe. But first the Truth must be set free.
Truth as prelude to reconciliation, that seems logical enough; but Truth as the justification, as the sole exaction or condition for Reconciliation? That is what constitutes a stumbling block in the South African proceedings. Unlike Master-Sergeant Doe or Emperor Bokassa, Idi Amin appears to be living in cozy retirement in Saudi Arabia. But suppose Uganda were to launch its Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the Idi Amin and Obote era, would either, if still alive, be entitled to return, confess his crimes, and be restored to the bosom of Uganda society, cleansed of all obligations to atone? Most African traditional societies have established modalities that guarantee the restoration of harmony after serious infractions--see, for instance, the banishment of Okonkwo after involuntary homicide in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. And, if we may be somewhat whimsical, Emperor Bokassa's bizarre return to the Central African Republic, in full knowledge of what fate awaited him, argues strongly for some kind of supernatural intervention--the vengeful souls of the violated children dragging him back from the security of his French asylum? Certainly, a singularly atrocious act appeared to be denied closure until the perpetrator returned to expiate on the scene of the crime. Maybe, in the sphere of abominations, (African) nature does abhor a vacuum. Are we then perhaps moving too far ahead of our violators in adopting a structure of response that tasks us with a collective generosity of spirit, especially in the face of ongoing violations of body and spirit?
Perhaps these are questions that, ultimately, can never be satisfactorily resolved--the teleology of the individual social mind is often at war with the collective. And then--to argue for the equitable stricture of law--since we deplore the application of retroactive law, a law that today punishes acts that were committed when such acts did not constitute crimes, do we tend to sense a moral distortion in a proceeding that pursues the opposite--pardons a crime through retroactive dispensation--this being without prejudice to the place of mitigation. Chile and Argentina are countries caught in a dilemma that is a cross between the politically expedient and the morally compelling. It must be pointed out also that several of the crimes being paraded through the hearings in South Africa today actually flouted the law and operational directives as spelled out even in apartheid times--in short, it is not simply that a case for the Eichmann defense--I was merely carrying out the orders of a superior--is not sustainable, it is also that it often cannot even be evoked.
The South African example, one that takes the bull by the horns by enunciating a clear direction of intent, obviously makes for compelling study. Other commissions make no claims beyond setting out the facts, a procedure that, in the main, grants no immunity beforehand (or very rarely, as a version of "plea bargaining") and does not foreclose the many possible mechanisms of some form of restitution by the inculpated. The "revolutionary" tribunal does not come into this purlieu, being usually an instrument of "revolutionary justice" that obeys no laws but the law of the victors, with or without the approbation of the liberated populace. South Africa was, of course, never a candidate for the revolutionary formula, since it owed its transformation more to negotiations than the route of arms.
History teaches us to beware of the excitation of the liberated and the injustices that often accompany their righteous thirst for justice. I was present at the "first coming" of Ghana's Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and could hardly believe my eyes and ears at the spectacles of mob justice that took place, often with the incitement and participation of uniformed soldiers. At other times, they merely kept implacable watch. In the main, they set up their own "instant justice" courts within their barracks or in the marketplaces, especially during their all-out war against profiteering and hoarding. Unforgettably disturbing were the processions of a baying student population in headlong messianic plunge into the abyss of unreason: Kill! Kill! Blood! Blood! More blood! Let the blood flow! More! More! Having witnessed, at first hand, the callous despoilation of a proud and productive nation by the top military brass and its civilian cronies, the deliberate erosion of civilian self-confidence in the ability to survive the present, much less direct its future, the moment of truth was one that I had eagerly awaited and, indeed, one toward which, from our Transition outpost, we had been able to make some modest contribution. In the end, one was left to wonder, in hindsight at least, if the approach of a Truth and Reconciliation, albeit with some fundamental changes in the essentials--something closer to Truth and Restitution--would not have served the Ghanaian populace better. The apogee of that movement's mode of restitution was, controversially, the public execution of six military officers, four of them generals. For one at least, there was absolutely no justice, since truth was not a factor in his trial. His execution was murder, a fact that was attested to, on several occasions, by the leader of the insurrection turned revolution of sorts, who was helpless, it would appear, confronted by the tide of unreason. Typical of the Jacobin mood from the civilian sector--by no means unanimous, admittedly--was the following exhortation from an editorial in the Ghanaian Catholic Standard (July 29, 1979), authored by a Roman Catholic priest:
This revolution is not a wedding party ... this is the time to literally baptize the whole nation. ... We do not love those executed less, but we love our country more. ... Of course, the executions are not the only solution, but they certainly form part of the solution.
And from a medical doctor's contribution to West Africa (London, July 2, 1979):
I endorse absolutely the determination of the Armed revolutionary Council to wash the country clean with the blood of the corrupt. ... I have been telling my friends for some time now that Ghana's only cleansing lotion is the blood of those who so badly let her down through selfishness and corruption. ... Ghana is so heavily soiled that the blood of 500 can be enough only for the removal of surface dust. To remove the grime and ingrained dirt, the AFRC has to go a great deal further.
Enough, I think, of the obverse face of Truth and Reconciliation, always recollecting that the Ghanaian upheaval was a vastly different scenario from the South African. The only ground they share is that of recognition of a need for a purgation of the past, the creation of a new sense of being, but they do serve us as two extreme options for the initiation of such a process after the collapse of a discredited and criminal order. Would the Truth and Reconciliation ethic have been applicable, even thinkable in post-Acheampong Ghana? In post-Mobutu Zaire? Will it be adaptable in post-Abacha Nigeria? That circumstances may make such a proceeding expedient is not to be denied, but we must not shy away from some questions: would it be just? And, more important, how does it implicate both the present and the future?
The crimes that the African continent commits against her kind are of a dimension and, unfortunately, of a nature that appears to constantly provoke memories of the historic wrongs inflicted on that continent by others. There are moments when it almost appears as if there is a diabolical continuity (and inevitability?) to it all--that the conduct of latter-day (internal) slaverunners is merely the stubborn precipitate of a yet unexpiated past. The ancient slave stockades do not seem ever to have vanished; they appear more to have expanded, occupying indiscriminate spaces that often appear contingent with national boundaries. Thus, the role of memory, of ancient precedents of current criminality, obviously governs our responses to the immediate and often more savage assaults on our humanity, and to the strategies for remedial action. Faced with such a balancing imposition--the weight of memory against the violations of the present--it is sometimes useful to invoke the voices of the griots, the ancestral shades and their latter-day interpreters, the poets. Memory obviously rejects amnesia, but it remains amenable to closure that is, apparently, the ultimate goal of social strategies such as Truth and Reconciliation, and the Reparations Movement (for the enslavement of a continent). It is there that they find common ground even though the latter does entail, by contrast, a demand for restitution. Both seek the cathartic bliss, the healing that comes with closure.
The black poet--both within the continent and the diaspora--has been thrust into the heart of this hunger for closure, and has responded in a diversity of ways that testify to the poet's unique formation in colonialism and displacement (or alienation) and self-restoration through a humanistic ethos that sometimes appears to be a deliberate act of fatih, more a quest than a cultural given. How broadly, how generously that humanistic cloak should be spread remains the grist of poetic argument--poet versus poet--as each interprets a common experience through the prisms of traditional thought as well as those of other distillations of knowledge, wisdom, and faith (including ideology)--sometimes of the very violators of that continent's own humanity. Unlike the theologian, who takes his voice from the realms of deities, the poet appropriates the voice of the people and the full burden of their memory. Where he invokes the gods and the ancestors (as in the case of Rene Depestre or Birago Diop), it is usually to make them serve the agenda of peoples, to execute their judgment on history and minister to the pangs of their memory. The strategy of a poet-cum-theologian as, in a very special sense, Leopold Sedar Senghor may be considered, therefore serves as a bridge for the impulse that separates the memory-driven poet and the would-be transcedentalist over history. To err is human, to atone, humane, declares one: to err is human, to forgive, African, responds the other. Is a continent's humanity of such bottomless reserves that it can truly accommodate the latter? The poets have confronted, in advance of the event, the great humanistic dilemma of South Africa, and it would appear, in the main, that the poet sometimes anticipates or vindicates the vision of the statesman.
Excerpted from The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness by Wole Soyinka Copyright ©2000 by Wole Soyinka. Excerpted by permission.
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