Remembering apartheid with fondness

Eusebius McKaiser reviews Jacob Dlamini's book Native Nostalgia

What does it mean for black South Africans to remember life under apartheid with fondness? This is the question Jacob Dlamini explores in his debut book aptly entitled Native Nostalgia (see here). Dlamini is the most lyrical South African writer since Johnny Steinberg drifted off to New York. Like Steinberg, he delivers reflective insights with rhythmic beauty. It is worth reflecting on his main claim - which will surely stimulate debate in the months ahead - that many black South Africans harbour nostalgic memories of life under Verwoerd's government.

His key premise is that life within South African townships during apartheid was rich and complex, contrary to widespread descriptions of them as mere sites of socioeconomic depravity. Life happened in the township both despite apartheid and in complex relation to apartheid. Fond recollections by blacks are not an inadvertent legitimation of an immoral political system. Of course, fear of being seen to retrospectively endorse apartheid explains why a book like Dlamini's might not have been written before - it invites a lazy accusation that the writer wishes apartheid had never ended.

By arguing that not all aspects of life in townships were hell, Native Nostalgia humanises township residents. It recognises that township residents have always exhibited complex agencies with which they built and negotiated daily life during apartheid. These lived realities - lying at the heart of nostalgic recollections by blacks -  include music, art, games, partying and other markers of normalcy that showcase the human spirit's defiance of the psychological insult that was apartheid. Dlamini adds to this rich characterisation with a number of thought provoking related claims. 

He claims that Afrikaans is the language of nostalgia for many black South Africans. Phrases such as a ‘Waar was jy?' - which also became the title of a hit song for the outfit Skeem - and ‘Toeka!' and many others instantly evoke a litany of fond memories. A jazz track may invite a lover or friend, for example, to implore another to ‘Hoor net daar!' The appearance of Afrikaans across the cultural landscape of township life means that there is an Afrikaans cultural grammar that white Afrikaans speakers might never recognise. This is not to deny the fact that Afrikaans still has an oppressive resonance for many black South Africans. The salient point is that the relationship between black South Africans and the ‘oppressors' language' is more ambiguous than simplistic accounts of that relationship that start and stop with the 1976 Soweto uprisings. 

There are interesting academic insights too that flow from this analysis. There is often a temptation in the social sciences to trot out an overarching narrative that can explain human behaviour particularly at a group level. This is why many liberal researchers mistakenly think they are doing township inhabitants a favour by viewing the township as an object of pity. It is, as Dlamini points out, telling that townships are often referred to as ‘sites' to be examined rather than as ‘places' to be experienced. Sites can be placed under an outsider's microscope for a couple of weeks and then written about as a social science thesis project.

Places, on the other hand, are a challenge to be avoided. They imply the existence of irreducible complexities in the details of a community's life and the lives of its individual members. Few theses and books engage South African townships as places of ordinariness. Even contemporary black writers like Eric Miyeni unreflectively assume that the ultimate marker of upward mobility is whether one can run from a Johannesburg township to Melville or Sandton more quickly than one's township friends can kill one of those township rats that look like a cat.

A moment of critical reflection should reveal an implicit assumption that township life is one dimensional. As Dlamini puts it, many wrongly assume that township life is poor just because many of those who live in the township are poor. He urges researchers to put the senses at the heart of their research methodology. In order to understand the inner lives of communities, it is important to live with them- through the senses.

One cannot help but feel, smell, listen, touch and see with Dlamini as he locates us successfully within his world. It reminded me of Fhazel Johennesse's poem  Living in a flat in Eldorado Park which also succeeds in using mere words on a page to evoke in the reader the full range of experiences that constitute the messy, busy life in the block of flats in Eldorado Park that the poem focuses on.

Dlamini recounts his stories with the same kind of linguistic magic. He also describes it with honesty reminiscent of Dambudzo Marechera's account of Zimbabwean township life in the classic novella House of Hunger. Unlike Marachera, we are painted a picture of South African township life in nonviolent language that helps to keep an ignorant reader's prejudices at bay. Academics chipping away in the social sciences would do well to take Dlamini's methodological challenge seriously.

The overall analysis suffers two shortcomings. First, Dlamini promised too much. The book initially gives the impression that hard answers will be provided to the question of why many black South Africans remember life under apartheid with fondness. We never quite arrive at an actual answer. The book is better described as a bouquet of insightful anecdotes that render township lives more complex and more human than countless outsiders assume.

Of course, it was always going to be difficult to step back from such an account of township life and ask, "Have I succeeded in accounting for native nostalgia or did I create something else?" The answer is, "Something else of equal value." That "something else" just is a rich narration of life in the township. But that is very different from delving into philosophical and psychological territory about memory which a more genuine account of nostalgia anywhere would have to provide.

This connects with the second weakness. Dlamini does not explore the real possibility that there is ultimately nothing special or puzzling about black South Africans remembering the past with fondness. It may simply be a universal human tendency. The English saying "the summers were hotter when we were kids!" captures that universal tendency to think nostalgically about the past. Of course, in the context of life under an oppressive regime, this tendency seems somewhat bizarre. But ultimately it might still say more about the general psychology of remembering than about anything peculiar about black South Africans.

No doubt many Germans have fond memories of life before the fall of the Berlin wall. And it would not take long to elicit some charming stories from Ugandans about elements of normal life during Idi Amin's reign. The thrust of Dlamini's book provide material for ‘remembering' to be explored. But the full exploration of the act of remembering, with all its conceptual, psychological and philosophical complexity, awaits another day.

These weaknesses are not jarring. It is a magnificent achievement to detail the tapestry of township life so completely. Dlamini forces us to ponder uncomfortable truths. In the end many of these truths do not (as some readers will wrongly claim) invite us to review our moral assessment of apartheid.

Instead, these uncomfortable truths disturb the racist spirit of Verwoerd by adding to his defeat with memories that scream, "Despite your violent apartheid evil, we've got news for you! Our humanity and agencies were never entirely within your racist control!" We have no reason to fear native nostalgia.

Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Centre for the Study of Demoracy. He is also a contributing editor at Business Day. He blogs at

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