History speaks: Your memory be damned

Written by Dr Roger Stewart • Online since 15.09.2015 • Filed under Industry news • From Issue 2 - September 2015 - February 2016 page(s) 25-26
History speaks: Your memory be damned

South Africa, Egypt and Syria have experienced the removal of images and other symbols that represent unwanted or intolerable ideas or memories. Is this the way to go?

Because dishonouring is a form of commemoration, the ancient Roman senate imposed the sanction of Damnatio memoriae: all reminders of the offender were to be expunged. The sanction involved a cathartic defacing, destroying or removing from view of images, buildings, possessions and anything else that had the potential to remind society of the condemned person. Effectively, the offender became an ‘unperson’. The sanction of erasing unwanted memory has taken other forms – renaming spaces and places, destroying or hiding items in museums or places of worship, censorship and ‘total elimination of any trace of mental colonisation’. We cannot know about successful campaigns to have people forgotten. However, history is littered with its failures, such as Stalin’s failed damnatio memoriae of Trotsky, despite the murder of members of Trotsky’s family.

In his Life of Reason, George Santayana warned that those who do not remember the past will repeat it. Memory is necessary, but it is not sufficient for preventing us from repeating the past. That requires learning, signalled by a change of thinking and behaviour. Sadly, attempts to expunge memory have not fostered learning: the unacceptable deeds that led to the sanction continued to be repeated. Nevertheless, the ancient sanction continues today – will it lead to different outcomes?

The general challenge is this: what to do with symbols from an unpleasant, even horrible past? The framing of this open question as a dichotomy, a false dilemma, constrains the answer – we remove the symbol or we leave it. This framing of the problem was followed by the University of Cape Town: move or leave in place the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Apparently, there was a sole dissenting vote when the members of UCT’s senate and council UCT decided to remove the statue to an undisclosed location. It is a great pity that UCT’s scholars and councillors were not innovative in solving their conundrum: the Rhodes statue has been banished, to be displayed or hidden in a ‘museum of unwanted memories’. Nelson Mandela became involved in the future of the Rhodes Scholarships. Unexpectedly, he formed a partnership with the Rhodes Trust, co-creating the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation and Scholarship. ‘The bringing together of these two names represents a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle; drawing together the legacies of reconciliation and leadership and those of entrepreneurship and education. Already the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships are changing the lives of young Africans, who will play vital roles in the future of the continent. The achievements of The Mandela- Rhodes Foundation so far have been remarkable, but it is its future potential that is most exciting.’ Mandela’s inspired move ‘closed a circle of history’, but opened the portal to new opportunities and a better future for the country. Scholarships, arguably the most prestigious in the country, are awarded to outstanding students who are African citizens and who also possess leadership ability, entrepreneurial skills, and a commitment to reconciliation; and the majority of awards are to Africans of indigenous origin. Mandela and the Rhodes Trust of the time refused to be impaled on the horns of a false dilemma. They explored the space that is excluded in dichotomous thinking. Their exploration delivered the paradoxical juxtaposition of Mandela and Rhodes, which made way for a new and unifying meaning and direction to the contentious Rhodes legacy; and it augmented Mandela’s legacy. It is a meaning that resonates with a country in search of transformation.Recalling, reflecting on, and understanding history in context are essential to making sense of complex legacies. Making sense of and learning from history may require new thinking and result in new meaning. The creative step in learning is setting a new direction towards a better long-term future; the next step is focusing energy on reaching the destination. We cannot be sure new ways will succeed, but that does not justify framing of complex human conundrums as a false dichotomy. In the heat of the furore at UCT, Mandela’s creative approach to the Rhodes conundrum seems to have been forgotten, ignored or discarded. Was the falling of the Rhodes statue symbolic of another, more ominous falling from grace?

Dr. Stewart works with senior managers on thinking creatively about and finding novel solutions to their challenges. For more information, visit www.BusinessSculptors.com.

Issue 2 - September 2015 - February 2016

Issue 2 - September 2015 - February 2016

This article was featured on page 25-26 of SABI Magazine Issue 2 - September 2015 - February 2016 .

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