To explore the patterns of collective memory in South Africa after nearly three decades of democracy, we set out to determine how much of the country’s recent history is still remembered by the people of the country.

About 3,000 people over the age of 15 responded to the Humanities Research Council’s annual South African Social Attitudes Survey (2021). Nationally representative data indicate low awareness of the country’s population about key historical events. The Marikana massacre – the police killing of 34 striking miners on 16 August 2012 – is one of them.

Just over 40% of respondents said they had heard of mass killings but knew very little about them, while 17% said they had no idea. Only 40% said they knew enough about Marikana to explain it to a friend.

The findings show that the South African public has relatively low awareness of the tragedy. This raises uncomfortable questions about the country’s collective memory, implying poor recognition and appreciation of important turning points in modern national history.

South African Social Attitudes Survey, 2021.

To put the findings in perspective, we compared the response to the Marikana massacre with other major historical events in the country. These included the #FeesMustFall movement (2015/16), the 1976 Soweto uprising and the Sharpeville massacre (1960).

The results show that awareness of the Marikana massacre was very similar to knowledge of the #FeesMustFall Movement, with 16% having heard of it, 41% showing limited knowledge and 40% not knowing (Fig. 2).

South African Social Attitudes Survey, 2021

Familiarity with the anti-apartheid youth uprising of 1976 in Soweto was slightly lower. Awareness of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 peaceful protesters against restrictions on the movement of black people were shot, was even lower. The share of respondents who are confident that they will be able to describe historical events to someone varied from 26% to 40%.

These findings suggest that awareness is likely event-specific. And that it is influenced by the way events have recently unfolded. But in general, the level of knowledge about historical events in general remains quite low.

As philosopher George Santayana once said

those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Reduced memory

Women were slightly less aware of the Marikana massacre than men. A high percentage of young people – especially those aged 16 to 19 – and those over 65 knew very little. The group that knew the most was between the ages of 35 and 49.

Less educated and rural adults showed significantly less awareness of the Sharpeville massacre. The influence of education is particularly pronounced in the formation of awareness. Access to information also matters. People who have television or Internet access at home demonstrate higher levels of knowledge than those who do not.

Across all these attributes, more than a fifth of youth (16-24 years) and students, those with less than secondary school education, rural residents and those living in the North West, Northern Cape, Free State and The Eastern Cape reported that it had not heard of the Marikana massacre.

The most surprising finding was the relatively low level of awareness among residents of the North-West Province, where the massacre took place. This raises the question that this historic event is under-represented on the media platforms available to this community.

Want to remember?

In addition to social and demographic characteristics, the survey also found that individual beliefs about the past and its relevance to the present had a strong influence on awareness of the Marikana massacre (Figure 3).

First, a significant factor was the degree to which people expressed an interest in “South African history and culture”. Those who were very interested in local history and culture were almost four times more likely to know about the massacre than those who had no interest at all (55% compared to 14%).

A similar pattern was found based on the degree to which South Africans recognized the importance of the past to the present. Those who believed that historical events were very important were two and a half times more likely to explain the events of Marikana than those who did not (55% vs. 22%).

Finally, adults were less knowledgeable about the Marikana massacre (37% could explain the event) if they believed that:

we need to forget the past, move on and stop talking about apartheid.

Those who challenge this view showed a significantly higher level of awareness (52%).

Given the importance of such beliefs, it is encouraging that many South Africans recognize the importance of the past to the present. Overall, 71% were interested in South African history and culture (38% very much, 33% somewhat), while 78% said historical events such as the Marikana massacre were very or somewhat important today (47% very much, 32% somewhat).

More mixed, 45% agreed that South Africans should forget the past and move on, while 31% disagreed and 24% were neutral or undecided.

Memory, responsibility and justice

The tenth anniversary of the Marikana massacre raises many lingering and uncomfortable questions. These include issues of responsibility and blame, the nature of corporate power and state violence in democratic South Africa, and ultimately social justice, restitution and healing.

As William Gumede, associate professor at Wits School of Management, has argued, failure to remember and address the issue of reparations will put “many other Maricans” at risk for society.

As former public defender Thuli Madonsela stated in a memorial lecture in Marikana in 2020,

Marikana happened because we forgot to remember. We forgot to remember our ugly, unjust past and the legacy it left us… We forgot to heal and focused on renewal. Update without foundation cannot work.

Samela Mtingizane, PhD student at the Humanities Research Council, contributed to the research and writing of this article.Conversation

Benjamin Roberts, Acting Strategic Director: Development, Capability and Ethics Research Unit (DCES) and Coordinator, Social Relations Survey of Southern Africa (SASAS), Humanities Research Council; Jarre Struvig, Chief Research Manager, Humanities Research Council;, Humanities Research Counciland Stephen Gordon, Senior Research Scientist. Humanities Research Council

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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