Colonialism and its Aftermath

The Ethics of Nostalgia in Post-apartheid South Africa

The ethics of memory, for Eviatar Zerubaval and Paul Ricoeur, means remembering the past so as to build a better future. In post-apartheid South Africa, a wide variety of memory practices have been adopted so as to bring to the broader public reminders of the past, a past that must be remembered so that it will not be repeated.

In addition to new history curricula in schools and the massive archive of public testimony generated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there are also new museums, memorial gardens, public statuary and commemorative public holidays. There has also been an outpouring of life writing. In a country with a relatively small book buying public, astonishing numbers of biographies and even greater numbers of autobiographies are published each year. In general, these diverse efforts – the official, publicly funded commemorative initiatives as well as individual efforts to preserve personal memory – seek to shape collective memory in ways that invoke the horrors of the apartheid past. In this new democracy, the memory work seeks an accommodation of that troubled past in contemporary efforts to create an ethically defensible present and future.

But what are we to make of life writing, intended to be read by South Africans across the race and class spectrum, that recalls the apartheid past nostalgically? Can any case be made for construing such memory work, which recalls apartheid with fondness, as ethical remembering? In this paper I look at Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia, the recently published autobiographical account of Dlamini’s apartheid childhood.

Judith Lütge Coullie (Prof.)