Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Professor Njabulo Ndebele's speech 'They are burning memory' at the Annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture

Last week I had the privilege to listen to Professor Njabulo Ndebele's talk, 'They are burning memory' at the annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg. The clip is available at I am not sure where the full text is available, but for members of SOTL @UJ project, I have placed it in the dropbox folder.

Like Njabulo's writing in general, the talk is dense, metaphorical, full of cadences and subtle. At the risk of doing the talk an injustice, I will attempt to summarise the key propositions:

Burning artefacts such as artworks or statues does not obliterate the past and memory, 'Human memory exists independently of its physical representations'. However memory and experience are necessary for learning. There must have been a negative force that propelled students to burn these artefacts, What is it that they learned and the context in which that learning took place which led them to that moment of cognition to feel compelled to take the action that they did?'  Colonisation affect whites as well as blacks, 'In reality, the system dehumanised both'.  The current protest is reactive:

'Against this background, a critical and sobering learning in state transformation since 1994 is how easily the visionary goals evolved over a century of struggle could be forgotten within a short space of time, and how the mechanisms of maintaining an oppressive society can be assimilated by those once oppressed, and reproduced as a feature of political and social behaviour such that their relative failure to create a new society according to the visionary specifications that have driven the struggle
for that society for over a century is blamed on the racism of an ageing oppressor who is no longer in power. Visionary agency is given up precisely at that moment that it should be affirmed and intensified.'

Whilst anti-racism is important, one should be focusing on all aspects of co-existence with a measure of confidence or assertiveness, 'It is time to recognise that the norm of human presence in South Africa is “black”.' Ndebele was impressed by those students who remained behind at the end of the protests at the Union Buildings last year, as they appeared to care and to be reflective:

'When we use fire, we should also be more thoughtful: What will it take to tame fire, and to remember that fire can be a companion to invention; and that for fire to play its companion role, requires of those who use it a lot more thought, a lot more rigour in the thinking, a lot more thoughtful detail in
the doing, a lot more investment in time and focus to understand the rich complexity of people living in the social realm, meeting head-on the challenge of thought and imagination stretching across time into the centuries ahead, South Africa emerging as a successful democracy? These are questions I leave you with.'

The talk ended with the usual vote of thanks, but a student wanted to pose a question, the tenor of which was what gave Ndebele the right to interpret black pain, and to raise the issue of UJ protesting students who have been disciplined, unfairly.  The student's question was not entertained, and the session was closed. 

Was the student right to object that Ndebele interpreted the students' experiences? I will leave it for you to decide. 


  1. It might be useful to compare the three public lectures that have taken place recently in light of HE decolonisation discourses:

    Angela Davis's 17th Annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture,

    Lwandile Fikeni, Nolwazi Tusini , Leigh-Ann Naidoo's Ruth First Memorial talks and,

    Njabulo Ndebele's Helen Joseph Memorial lectures

    1. Thanks a lot Brenden, I have saved the Ruth First lectures in our folder too, as they are very valuable.

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