In this, his first book, Jacob Dlamini writes about growing up in Katlehong in Gauteng, in the tradition of Orhan Pamuk’s and Walter Benjamin’s accounts of their childhoods in Istanbul and Berlin respectively. Using fragments from his own childhood, he examines the nostalgia that many black people feel for the past – their lives under apartheid. In arguing that people do not stop being moral agents just because they are politically oppressed or discriminated against, the author seeks to recover the moral content of black life under apartheid.
This book is about nostalgia, an affliction of the heart that began life as a passing ailment but became an incurable modern condition. The book uses the life of a young black South African who spent his childhood under apartheid to ask the following question: What does it mean to remember a (black) life lived under apartheid with fondness and longing? The nostalgia examined here should not be understood the same way that the archetypal black pensioner trotted out by newspapers at each general election in South Africa says: “Things were better under apartheid.” No, apartheid had no virtue. But the author insists that we confront facile accounts of black life under apartheid that paint the 46 years in which the system existed as one vast moral desert, as if blacks produced no art, literature, music, bore no morally upstanding children or, at the very least, children who knew the difference between right and wrong – even if those children did not grow up to make the “right” moral choices in their lives. This is not to say there was no poverty, crime or moral degradation. There was, of course. But none of this determined the shape of black life in its totality.
This is not to suggest that all black families were happy the same way. Each family was, of course, unhappy in its own way. The differences between black families extended beyond questions of domestic bliss or strife. There were class, ethnic and gender differences aplenty. It behoves any history worthy of the name to take these differences seriously, which could be as small as the type of lawn one had in one’s yard, the type of furniture in each bedroom, or the type of fencing one had around the yard – whether the concrete slabs colloquially called “stop nonsense” or a wire mesh fence.
The author is interested also in the role of the senses in a person’s experience of nostalgia. He uses fragments drawn randomly from the past to look at his childhood in Katlehong as a lived experience of the senses. He tries to imagine how one might relay the history of Katlehong in terms of the senses of smell, hearing, taste, touch and sight. He uses his sensory experience of Katlehong, for example, to examine the place of radio in the life of an urban black family in apartheid South Africa. Here he does not simply wish to relay the auditory experience of listening to the radio but to look, rather, at how the very instrument that was supposed to be the government’s propaganda tool actually had the opposite effect, awakening in him a political consciousness that saw him adopt a politics at odds with the political gradualism and religious conservatism of his mother.
Again, he looks at how black schools, intended by government to be a great downward leveller of black ambition, inadvertently served to heighten class consciousness within black society, often pitting the local elite against the mass of the great black unwashed.
Finally, he studies how local political identities were formed in relation to both a national black identity and a much broader black diasporic identity.
About the Author
Jacob Dlamini is one of South Africa’s bright young intellectuals. A PhD student at Yale, he has written for a number of magazines and newspapers such as the Sunday Times.
Author Jacob Dlamini
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