David Rieff. Picture: SUPPLIED
David Rieff. Picture: SUPPLIED

Some of apartheid’s injustices are “unforgivable”, says David Rieff. It’s a startling statement from the man who has just written a book called In Praise of Forgetting.

“Personally, I have always been very sceptical about the forgiveness part of the TRC [Truth & Reconciliation Commission],” says Rieff, a US policy analyst and former war correspondent, whose latest book is a plea for peace. “People were being asked to forgive, quite literally, the unforgivable ... You read the testimonies and you think: ‘How can you forgive that?’ What you can do, eventually, is move on from it.”

It is that moving on — what in pop psychology is termed “letting go”, and what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called “active forgetting” — that Rieff argues is crucial for peace. The world, he says, would be a better place if people chose to forget a few things.

It is not history that is in Rieff’s sights, it is political memory. Where history is an empirical, academic exercise, political memory is the stuff of legend and — too often — social grievance. It fuels conflict, even war, with its endless nursing of old wounds. Whereas history is cognisant of the ambiguity and complexity that characterise human relations, memory leaves no room for any of that.

Rieff has personal experience of the destructiveness of memory’s imperfect convictions. In the early 1990s he reported as a journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1993, in Belgrade, Rieff was leaving the offices of Serbian nationalist Vuk Draškovic when a young aide pressed into his hand a piece of paper on which was written the date 1453 — the year, 500 years earlier, when Orthodox Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the Muslim Ottomans.

It is embittered grudge-holding such as this on which war and social conflict thrive, says Rieff. Peace rests on “nasty compromise”. Though he doesn’t mention it, what immediately comes to mind are current discussions over whether Nelson Mandela “sold out” to white SA in the negotiations that ended apartheid, securing political freedom at the expense of economic freedom.

Rieff is wary of commenting on SA, beyond the TRC process.

His book concentrates on conflicts with which he is more familiar — the “Irish Troubles”, the Bosnian War and the US Civil War — but the message is universal: some things are best brushed over.

“I don’t believe all good things go together,” he says. “Most peace settlements involve more compromise and less justice.” Rieff points to the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian War. “It was a very unjust settlement that was reached in 1995, but I literally scraped body parts off walls. I was happy for peace any way.”

The belief that “all good things go together” is one to which the international nongovernmental community often clings, says Rieff. Harms are hung onto in the desperate hope that justice will come and, through that, all will be well. That is blindness to reality.

Rieff is not without sympathy for grudges and arguments over what is happening now. “In SA what people are arguing about is within living memory. I am more against keeping [hold of] it beyond living memory,” he says, pointing to the commemorations in 1966 and 2016 of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, the last ” beyond memory”.

“In SA we are not yet there, beyond memory. If we were all talking about Rorke’s Drift, my call would be more relevant. ”Many of those who cling to political memories do so in the hope that memory will act as a safeguard. “‘Never again’ is part of a magical belief in the pedagogical and moral characteristics of remembrance,” says Rieff. From Buchenwald to Mandela’s inauguration, people have actually used those words as an incantation against further horror. Sadly, though understandable on an individual level, “never again” is a futile hope.

“There is no empirical basis for that claim. ‘Never again’ didn’t prevent East Pakistan, it didn’t prevent Rwanda ... People commit mass murder out of fear, and fear won’t be tamped down by memory ...

“Maybe the example of apartheid has been some kind of prophylactic, but — Tshwane. It didn’t take long for foreigners’ stores to be looted.

“Looking at that, it is hard for me to think that what Mandela said was taken seriously,” says Rieff, pointing to last month’s riots in Tshwane over the imposition of Thoko Didiza as a mayoral candidate.

And for the history buffs and thinkers there is the unavoidable knowledge that modern political history is young. France is 600 years old, China 2,000. “What history actually shows is that throughout recorded history, every society without a single exception has proven to be every bit as mortal as individual human beings. To try to think otherwise is a fool’s errand.”

Peace, says Rieff, is preferable to war, and this means that, for many reasons, “moving on” may, in certain situations, be preferable to “allowing the present and the future to be held hostage to the past”.

In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies
David Rieff
Yale University Press

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