The Other Side of Silence

By Richard Pithouse · 24 Apr 2013

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Picture: Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda courtesy Library of the Chilean National Congress/Wikimedia.
Picture: Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda courtesy Library of the Chilean National Congress/Wikimedia.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” - George Elliot, Middlemarch, 1874

The Economist recently celebrated Margaret Thatcher for her “willingness to stand up to tyranny”. For Barack Obama she was "one of the great champions of freedom and liberty". This is, plainly, what her old friend Mangosuthu Buthelezi likes to call poppycock. Thatcher offered her full support to the Saudi Monarchy and a whole clutch of psychopathic dictators including Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Suharto and Zia al Haq. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and invited P.W. Botha for lunch at her country home. Her rule was marked by a constant willingness to stand up for tyranny.

And while she was resolutely committed to hacking away at the welfare state in order to free capital and the rich from social obligation she didn't give a damn about the freedom of the people tortured and butchered by the dictators she backed in places like Indonesia and Pakistan. The financial crisis of 2008 and the riots of 2011 are two of the more striking aspects of the recent consequences of the legacy that she left Britain.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson, best known for his biography of Che Guevara, remarked on the curious fact that on the day that Thatcher died in the Ritz in London the remains of Pablo Neruda, often considered to have been the great poet of the last century, were exhumed from his grave at his home in Isla Negra on the coast near Santiago in Chile. On 11 September 1973 Salvador Allende, elected into office on the back of what Neruda called “a magnificent freedom movement”, was deposed from power in a military coup backed by the US. In the days after the coup Neruda concluded his autobiography by observing that Allende’s body was “buried secretly, in an inconspicuous spot.”

Twelve days after the death of Allende, Neruda, with a warship anchored in view of his home, a home which had been ransacked by soldiers, died. He was thought to have died of a heart attack. But thousands of others were rounded up, tortured and shot and responsibility for economic policy handed over to American academics in Chicago. The economic catastrophe that they wreaked on to Chile became the model that would be imposed around the global South and, after the financial crisis, eventually make its way to Europe.

Everywhere the results have been the same – the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. For Thatcher, Pinochet the fascist general who seized power through violence, held it with ruthless intimidation and handed his country’s economic sovereignty to the US, had “brought democracy to Chile”.

Neruda, like Pablo Picasso, had been an apologist for Stalin. His poetic sensibility, magnificent as it was, had serious limits. But, writing on a roughhewn wooden desk adorned with a picture of Walt Whitman, he did more than anyone to write the Latin American drama into the centre of the modern world. And the lives and strivings of ordinary people – people who are more ordinarily present in the collective imagination as the nameless masses, the backdrop to what is imagined to be the real drama, are constantly honoured in his work.

Neruda’s body was exhumed on the day that Thatcher died in order to determine whether or not he had, in fact, been murdered – poisoned by Pinochet’s soldiers. This moment of exhumation, of an attempt to discern the truth but, also, to reclaim memory is, like our own retrieval of Sarah Baartman’s remains from Paris to be buried, with honour, in the Gamtoos Valley, a moment in which a part has to come to stand in for an irretrievable whole. These are rare moments. Most bodies will remain forever buried in some inconspicuous spot. It is more usually the case that, as Mahmoud Darwish observed, in Beirut in August of 1982, “Memory doesn’t remember but receives the history raining down on it”.

But it’s not just Obama, The Economist and, in her day, Thatcher who invent a world of fantasies carefully calibrated to mask the interests that they represent. The Democratic Alliance, collapsing into a spectacularly dishonest hubris, wants to recast itself as a national liberation movement and the ANC as the new party of apartheid. Jacob Zuma takes a dim view of Trevor Manuel's argument that it is time for the ANC to assume responsibility for how it responds to the on-going consequences of apartheid rather than to mobilise aspects of the memory of apartheid to erase or trivialise its own failures.

The memory of oppression and resistance is constantly misused by the ANC to present contemporary grassroots struggles as cunning plots orchestrated by agents of the old order and to justify repression – including driving people from their homes, torture and murder. The common or garden white racist takes the view that colonialism built the country and that, while apartheid was unfortunate in some respects, we should all just move on. In this view the way in which a regime of violence made some people, white people, rich and others, black people, poor is rendered invisible. Wealth shows up, much as it does for the DA, as virtue while poverty shows up as a lack, a set of personal failings rather than a consequence of dispossession and oppression. The question of justice is erased.

This contestation around memory happens in a moment in which we are, as Pumla Gqola has noted, “both free and not entirely free of apartheid”. And this is not our only inbetweeness. We are also between liberal democracy and the more authoritarian society steadily being constructed by Zuma's ANC. The stereoscopic vision required to make sense of all this inbetweeness is often lacking in the strident modes of contestation that generally characterise our public sphere.

Don Mattera, writing after the destruction of Sophiatown, famously advised us that “memory is the weapon”. And Milan Kundera, writing after the crushing of the Prague Spring observed, in a phrase that has now become something of a cliché that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. If the erasure of women's struggle in this formulation was not a casualty of a botched translation it stands, inadvertently, as a reminder that memory is not a singular thing and that the weapons fashioned from it can be put to more than one purpose. This is why Nomboniso Gasa recommends that, in our attempts to gain a better sense of the past, we “listen very hard to what is said and to that which remains unmentioned, unmentionable and has been rendered invisible.”

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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