Reckoning With Apartheid: The Conundrum of Working Through the Past


From April 26-29, 1994, South Africa held its first universal, democratic elections. Witnessed by the world, South Africans of all races waited patiently in line to cast their ballots, signaling the official and symbolic birth of the “new” South Africa. The subsequent years, marked initially with euphoric hopes for racial healing enabled by institutional processes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), have instead, most recently, inspired deep concern about epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS, violent crime, state corruption, and unbridled market reforms directed at everything from property to bodies to babies. Now, seemingly beleaguered state officials deploy the mantra “TINA” (There Is No Alternative [to neoliberal development]) to fend off criticism of growing income and wealth disparities. To coincide, more or less, with the anniversary of 1994—less to commemorate than to signal something about the trajectory of the past twenty years—we are proposing an interdisciplinary, special theme section of Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (CSSAAME) entitled “The Haunted Present: Reckoning After Apartheid” (tentative title). The special theme section is framed around questions of reckoning in the double sense of both a moral and practical accounting for historical injury alongside the challenges and failures of the no-longer “new” South Africa. Against accounts depicting the liberation era as non-violent and peaceable, more nuanced analysis we argue suggests not only that South Africa’s “revolution” was marked by both collective and individual violence—on the part of the state and the liberation movements—but that reckoning with the present demands of scholars, the media, and cultural commentators that they begin to grapple more fully with the dimensions and different figurations of South Africa’s violent colonial history. Indeed, violence and reckoning appear as two central forces in contemporary South African political, economic, and social life. In response, we are driven to pose the following questions: In the post-apartheid period, what forms of (individual, structural) violence have come to bear on South African life? How does this violence reckon with apartheid and its legacies? Does it in fact reckon with the past? How can we or should we think about violence as a response to the (failed?) reckoning of state initiatives like the TRC? What has enabled or enables aesthetic forms—literature, photography, plastic arts, and other modes of expressive culture—to respond to the difficulties of South Africa’s ongoing transition? What, in fact, would a practice or ethic of reckoning defined in the following way look like? ˈrekəniNG/ noun: • the action or process of calculating or estimating something: last year was not, by any reckoning, a particularly good one; the system of time reckoning in Babylon • a person’s view, opinion, or judgment: by ancient reckoning, bacteria are plants • archaic, a bill or account, or its settlement • the avenging or punishing of past mistakes or misdeeds: the fear of being brought to reckoning there will be a terrible reckoning (Oxford English Dictionary) Looking back on the period, just before 1994, is sobering indeed. At the time, many saw in the energies and courage of those fighting for liberation the possibilities of a post-racial, post-conflict society. Yet as much as the new was ushered in, old apartheid forms lingered. Recalling Nadine Gordimer’s invocation of Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” more and more it seems “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci cited in Gordimer 1982). And even as the new began to emerge other forces—both internal and external to South Africa—redefined the conditions for transformation. The so-called “new” South Africa, as Jennifer Wenzel has argued, was really more than anything “the changing face of old oppressions” (Wenzel 2009:159). The implications for our special theme section of CSSAAME are many. We begin by exploring the gender, race, and class dimensions of contemporary South African life by way of its literatures, histories, and politics, its reversion to custom, the claims of ancestors on the living, in brief, the various cultural expressive modes in which contemporary South Africa reckons with its past and in so doing accounts, day by day, for the ways in which the present can be lived, pragmatically. This moves us some distance from the exercise in “truth and reconciliation” of the earlier post-transition years to consider more fully the nature of post-conflict, the suturing of old enmities in the present, and the ways of resolving those lingering suspicions both ordinary and the stuff of the dark night of the soul (Nelson 2009:xv).







Counihan, C, LV Graham, N Hoad, N Makhubu, Anne-Maria B Makhulu and RL Turner (2016). Reckoning With Apartheid: The Conundrum of Working Through the Past. Retrieved from



Anne-Maria B. Makhulu

Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology

Anne-Maria Makhulu is an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies and Core Faculty in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Her research interests cover: Africa and more specifically South Africa, cities, space, globalization, political economy, neoliberalism, the anthropology of finance and corporations, as well as questions of aesthetics, including the literature of South Africa. Makhulu is co-editor of Hard Work, Hard Times: Global Volatility and African Subjectivities (2010) and the author of Making Freedom: Apartheid, Squatter Politics, and the Struggle for Home (2015). She is a contributor to Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a Neoliberal Age (2004), New Ethnographies of Neoliberalism (2010), author of articles in Anthropological Quarterly and PMLA, special issue guest editor for South Atlantic Quarterly (115(1)) and special theme section guest editor for Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (36(2)). A new project, South Africa After the Rainbow (in preparation), examines the relationship between race and mobility in postapartheid South Africa and has been supported with an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

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