A recurrent theme throughout the histories of faith is memory: remember the work of God in your lives. In a similar way there is a challenge to remember where we have come from as South Africans. But in both cases, what we remember, and how we remember, poses a moral challenge because memory is often selective. For memory is both a mighty tool and a dangerous weapon.
The Israelites are called on in this text to remember God’s work in their liberation, not simply that they were freed from slavery but also that it was God who freed them. It gave them a sense of being God’s chosen people. And the temptation, to which they sometimes gave in, was (as with all chosen peoples) to make this an excuse for oppression or xenophobia. Tied to this (as a corrective) was a set of rules, not least of which was a call to defend their freedom and maintain their faith in God, while never forgetting they had a duty to treat the stranger hospitably.
Memory has in the last twenty-five years been important in South Africa. Indeed heritage, the memory ‘industry’, has become big business. Those who doubt this should visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg any day of the week: busloads of school children and foreign tourists come there to learn about our past. This is important. To forget one’s history is to risk repeating it.
Memory has also become a tool for creating ideology, what Max Weber the great German sociologist understood as a ‘worldview’. His fellow German Karl Marx had a less generous, but for us no less important definition of ideology: false consciousness, false ideas used to maintain a socio-economic and political system.
Contemporary South African memorialising treads an often uneasy path between the two definitions of ideology. Sometimes in selecting the past we (re)present, we overlook aspects of the Struggle that were shameful (e.g. necklacing of suspected collaborators with Apartheid, torture of ANC dissidents in Angola) or underplay the roles played by more marginal movements or communities in the struggle for freedom. Though memory is selective almost by nature, it can – and sometimes has – been used as a weapon to silence public debate, particularly when it involves criticism of current policy failures or persons who were either part of the old order or on the fringe of the Struggle.
The semi-official history Every Step of the Way produced several years ago by the Department of Education is to be highly commended. It succeeds in living up to the challenge faced by all South Africans: to embrace our past in its fullness, its light and shadow, so that a generation born in freedom may truly understand where we’ve come from – and where we might be going.