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Places of Complicity in Narratives of Historical Violence: Thiaroye (Dakar) and District Six (Cape Town)


In Places of Complicity, I consider how narratives of the past of two African places obscure, and sometimes explore, complicity. For primarily activist-intellectual publics, Thiaroye and District Six have been icons of “memory” of racist violence and resistant community. I argue that dominant discourses of memory that surround these two sites share a representational mode and perform analogous elisions of the past. They work primarily through a particularly mimetic form of realism, in which the contemporary subject is interpellated as a remembering subject, interpretation is coded as remembrance, and a representation of the past is conflated with the (remembered) past itself. That past is one of colonial and apartheid violence, and unified, resistant community. These memory discourses thus largely elide the non-dichotomous character of colonial and apartheid rule, with its many “complicit,” intermediary positions.

Widely varied intermediary positions were intrinsic to colonial and apartheid rule: among them were those of the civil servant, the native elite, the colonial soldier, the black French citizens of Senegal, and the quasi-citizens classified as “Coloured” by the apartheid state. Occupants of these positions were oppressed by that state, even as they occupied positions of privilege relative to others. The occupancy of these intermediary positions produces what I call “structural complicity” - a complicity defined by an intermediary location within a racialized political and economic structure. Thus, as I am employing the word, “complicity” is not a matter of individual agency; rather, it is produced by a particular position. Colonial and apartheid violence are most readily imagined as consisting of discreet acts of physical violation, committed by perpetrators upon victims. With the notion of “structural complicity,” I want to direct attention towards structural violence, and the array of historical positions, many of them intermediary, upon which it depends. In doing so, I hope to provoke related questions of representation and interpretation: How do we write and read structural violence? How do we articulate and theorize the complicity of subjects who benefit from a system of which they are also victims?

Structural complicity, while elided in many narratives of Thiaroye and District Six, was integral to the historical episodes that these narratives purport to remember. In the Thiaroye military camp, in 1944, French forces - West African colonial soldiers among them - massacred a still-unknown number of their own West African colonial soldiers. In South Africa, the apartheid government declared Cape Town's central District Six for white occupation in 1966. The District was razed and, over more than a decade, its approximately 60,000 residents, the majority of whom were classified as “Coloured,” were forcibly removed to the periphery of the city. Despite the differences between these two histories, there are striking similarities in the ways that they have been narratively produced. Idioms of collective memory that surround both sites produce analogous visions of oppression and resistance, and elide structural complicity in similar ways. For their respective publics, District Six and Thiaroye have been sites that should be part of national memory, rather than sites already located securely within it. As symbols that are not fully national, and not always memorial, they allow us to think about the possibilities and limitations of multiple collective imaginaries and multiple modes of narrating the past, both beyond and within the national, and both within and outside of the idiom of memory.

While all the narratives that I examine evoke memory, not all of them are articulated within the idiom of memory. The “idiom of memory,” as I use the term, assumes the existence of collective memory and interpellates the contemporary subject – the reader, viewer, or visitor - as a remembering subject: she will “recall” a past that she has not experienced. In my analysis, the best-known narratives express themselves through the idiom of memory, and lesser-known texts narrate and evoke the past outside of that idiom. While the former produce Thiaroye and District Six as “sites of memory,” the latter produce them as “places of complicity.”

A range of narratives, including literary texts and oral accounts, a film (Thiaroye), and a museum (District Six) have been generated around the two sites. The best-known accounts, such as Ousmane Sembène’s film Camp de Thiaroye (1987) and Richard Rive’s novel Buckingham Palace, District Six (1986), are articulated within the idiom of collective memory and recall a largely dichotomous past of white oppression and indigenous resistance, in which perpetrators and victims are clearly defined. The structural character of apartheid and colonial rule - with the many intermediary positions that it entailed - is therefore elided. Instead, a recalled historical family takes the place of a complex colonial/apartheid hierarchy. There is no violence within this imagined family; its hierarchical relationships signify care and protection and its sibling relationships of “brotherhood” join members together in horizontal bonds of solidarity. The identity of this family varies: the family of District Six may be black or Jewish or cosmopolitan, and the family of Thiaroye black and Pan-African, or Franco-African. Because they disavow the historical actors who occupied complicit positions, these accounts tend to “remember” only an unambiguously resistant and unified collectivity. A narrow conception of the historical “family” can produce an analogously narrow conception of the postcolonial nation: a homogenous heteronormative collective of resistant subjects.

In the less well-known narratives of District Six and Thiaroye that I examine, such as Boubacar Boris Diop’s Thiaroye terre rouge (1981) and Richard Rive’s “Riva” (1983), the metaphor of collective memory is absent, or less powerful. These narratives are preoccupied with positions of historical complicity and they evoke complicity in moments of surreal proximity and oblique allusion. Family bonds also figure in these accounts, but they are suspect or marginal; the correctly raced heteronormative family may appear as a location of betrayal or as marginal to the central, queer, relationship. These texts draw our attention to the structural violence of colonial and apartheid rule and prompt questions about the violence of the past and its implication in the postcolonial and post-apartheid present.

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