In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Czechoslovakian author Milan Kundera makes a very powerful statement when he says: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long, the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster…The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
Developments in our country over the past few weeks have compelled us to revisit Kundera, to reflect deeply on the ways in which memory is used as a weapon of power. A few weeks ago, a group of protesters stormed the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book, Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture. The protesters disrupted the launch, stating that they would not allow a book “peddled with lies” to be launched.
This was followed by the ANC Youth League in the Free State province organising a bonfire to burn copies of the book. Although this campaign was subsequently abandoned, it betrayed the extent to which some in our democratic country place minimal value on free and open discussions about important public interest matters.
Beyond this, it demonstrated the emergence of a dangerous reality in South Africa: that of using power to shape memory. Throughout history, fascist and oppressive regimes have claimed hegemonic power through the manufacture and invention of new history, by reconstructing the memory of the people. It is a powerful, albeit devastating method of exercising power, that can only be described as violent.
An unrelated but similar incident occurred a few days ago. The Equality Court ruled that the Black First Land First (BLF) slogan, “Land or Death”, constitutes hate speech, and that the party should cease to use it in speech and regalia. The BLF has indicated that it would appeal the ruling – something that we think could set parameters for an important conversation on the examination of characteristics of legal institutions and the place of ideology in law.
The Marxist theory of law exposes the belief in the rule of law as being a subtle and pervasive ideology which serves to obscure the structures of class domination within the state. It demonstrates the many ways in which the law can be used as an instrument of class oppression. The Equality Court’s ruling that an oppressed people making a declaration that they are prepared to die for their land is hate speech betrays not only the court’s own ideological leanings, but a dismal failure to understand that the land question has always been a fundamental struggle for oppressed people all over the world.
The Cuban Revolution, undoubtedly one of the most significant revolutions of our time, was rooted in the struggle for spatial justice. Fidel Castro’s clarion call to rejuvenate a revolutionary spirit among the downtrodden Cubans was expressed in the slogan Patria o Muerte! – homeland or death – a statement that would be shouted to the world by Ernesto “Che” Guevara in his memorable 1964 speech at United Nations where he was calling for an end to imperial devastation in colonised Africa and Latin America.
This statement has also been an anchor of the South African struggle for liberation, which was fundamentally a struggle against colonial conquest and its manifestations. In declaring the BLF slogan as hate speech, the courts have sought to rewrite a history that we carry on our backs – a history of struggle and resistance by people who have suffered from colonialism and apartheid. But this is not just a struggle buried in history. In our contemporary reality, rural communities such Amadiba in the Eastern Cape, in their struggle for land justice, have consistently communicated that they are prepared to die fighting for their land against private companies that seek to engage in uranium mining on the pristine environment.
The question then becomes: what about this declaration of commitment to the liberation of the oppressed constitutes hate speech?
The answer is simple: a demand for land by the oppressed is a source of discomfort for those who benefit from the structural violence and inequality that sees a majority of the people in our country hurled at the margins of existence. The courts in this instance used the law as an instrument to deny the oppressed and disenfranchised majority the right to their memory: a memory of struggle and of resistance. In so doing, it also rewrote history – changing a revolutionary ideal of Patria o Muerte into something ugly.
Like the protestors who wanted to burn books, the courts want to erase history. But this will be met with resistance, for ours is a struggle of memory against forgetting.
Kgabo Morifi is a PhD candidate at the Tshwane University of Technology and the District Secretary of the YCL in Tshwane and Malaika Wa Azania is a Masters candidate at Rhodes University and the bestselling author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.