There Is Neither Truth Nor Reconciliation in So-Called “South Africa”

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Following the collapse of Apartheid state, South Africa became the leading laboratory for “transitional justice.” Constitutional  scholar Tshepo Malingozi disputes this legal framework, which constitutes yet another elaborate iteration of settler hegemony in the “country with no name.”

Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: We are having this conversation in Johannesburg, which brings up not only the city, but also the country that we are in. You call this country “ the country with no name.” Could you tell us why?

TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: I mean multiple things. I started using that notion around 2014. Before that, every time I introduced myself after being asked where I am from — I’d answer « I’m from South Africa.» But what is South Africa ? The name « South Africa » indicates a geographical indication: south of Africa. It is a country without a name because it has no specific name. It’s a country that denotes a specific geography. It is only one of two countries in Africa without a name. And the other one would be the Central African Republic.

LL: And Western Sahara…

TM: …and Western Sahara of course! Which is still colonized. Secondly, I mean that South Africa is a country without a name because it is a country that was constituted by settler colonialists. In African culture, in fact in all cultures, you name your child. “South Africa,” the territory, is nameless because it was named not by its heirs, but by its violators, its usupers. We forget that this is a very new country, created in 1910. They decided to call it “South Africa.” A country founded by blood, baptised in blood. Thirdly, this alienating baptism was done that way to denote the sense that this territory is not part of Africa — it is in Africa, but not part of Africa. Of course, settler colonialism means that the settlers come from their homeland and make home somewhere. But in the process of the settler making home somewhere, they destroy the home of those who are colonized. So my PhD was all about this question: how do we apprehend the constituting of a settler colony, and therefore how do you de-constitute it in constitutional terms. And the main point here is that in “South Africa,” settler colonialisation — not just colonialism — meant the destruction of the social-cultural world of Indigenous people, of African people. And on top of it was imposed, this alien thing. The condition of possibility of South Africa is, therefore, the conquering and suppression of African kingdoms and the forceful incorporation of so-called native people into a “white men’s polity.” Fourthly, this country is without a name because it is a country that doesn’t belong to the majority of its citizens; it is a country that denies History. That’s why it is “South Africa”: nameless, rootless and ultimately, dismembered. For Indigenous people, it is a nothing, a country that perpetuates the notion of unhomeliness, dislocation, and rootlessness. Black people are nominally “South African.” They are in South Africa, but they are not rooted in South Africa. This was part of settler futurity, of constituting South Africa — a country that belongs to certain people; a minority. Look at my birth certificate for exemple. It says my name, my surname, and it says my homeland. And this is my homeland: it’s a place called Qwaqwa. I’ve never been to that place, my mother’s never been to that place, my father’s never been to that place. The colonial regime assigned one homeland for my mother and designated another homeland for my father. The colonial regime declared me of a totally different homeland. It is a joke. It is a farce. It is meant to dislocate me forever. 

So the sense of rootlessness, the sense of worldlessness, not being in the world, is part of settler colonization. It’s part of this name. The naming is part of this alienation and dislocation. The point here is this: this name does not just perform physical dislocation because people have been removed from place to place; from ancestral lands to “elsewhere” to make space for white people. “South Africa” is not just a constant, insistent reminder of physical dislocation; it is a reminder of cultural subjugation. Finally, and relatedly, of course South Africa sees itself as/in the image of Europe. That is why the name is in English. It does not see itself not as part of Africa but almost as a country next to Portugal. So cultural subjugation, but ultimately also psychic dislocation: you don’t know who you are. The question “Who I am?” is really a question that continues today because of the alien culture that we call South Africa. 

LL: This was for the “where.” There’s also the “when.” We are September 12, 2019, which is the 42nd anniversary of the execution of Steve Biko, who is immensely important in the constitution of Black consciousness in South Africa. You kindly sent me a text that you wrote about the total fallacy of transitional justice, and that’s what we are going to talk about throughout this conversation. It also describes the way that time is approached in nationalist and settler colonial narratives in South Africa. I haven’t been here for many days, but as any person who comes here, I’ve been to the Apartheid Museum, I’ve been to the Hector Pieterson Memorial, and in both cases the national narrative seem very negotiated if not bargained. The information was also incredibly linear in the way one would experience the Apartheid Museum to end up in this sort of “rainbow nation” that triumphes over white supremacy. In a text, you talk about the nationalist effort “to distend the time” in this extreme linearity of time. Could you please tell us more about this?