Language and Memory
How can we talk about apartheid?
South African writers, artists and filmmakers grappling with this question have produced some incredibly engaging and thought-provoking cultural works over the last twenty years. A clear example of this is Zulu Love Letter, in which the filmmakers Bheki Peterson and Ramadan Suleman pose the question: how should the story of a nation’s pain be expressed in the personal stories of those who suffered during apartheid, and who continue to suffer in the present day under the weight of a traumatic history? This film does not fall into the trap of using its characters as plot devices to represent particular periods of the country’s history. Rather, the narrative is striking in the sense of continuity it portrays between the apartheid and the post-apartheid eras.
The character of Thandeka Khumalo, the protagonist of Zulu Love Letter, undercuts the narrative of remembering and forgiving that was extolled during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by experiencing the trauma of the past in the present. Through a series of ‘interludes’, Thandeka relives the memory of witnessing the murder of the activist Dineo Tau by security police. Peterson explains that ‘interludes’ rather than flashbacks were used in the film in order to simultaneously ‘encapsulate and disrupt the coherence of time and the certitudes of experience and memory’. These scenes – characterised by distorted, reverberating sound and visual quality – put you in the subject position of Thandeka, experientially recreating her trauma. Through this strong identification with her experience, Thandeka’s seemingly erratic behavior and difficulty in relating to other characters can be much better understood.
One of the key relationships portrayed in the film is that between Thandeka and her daughter Simangaliso from whom she has been estranged for many years as a result of her involvement in political activism. Simangaliso was born deaf as a consequence of the abuse suffered by Thandeka when she was detained while pregnant during apartheid, and communicates using sign language. When Thandeka goes to visit Simangaliso’s school, the teacher asks if Thandeka has learned to sign, but her question is symbolically followed by an awkward silence. Thandeka is unable to communicate effectively with her daughter, just as she is unable to express her traumatic past in a way that would allow her to move on with her life. Simangaliso’s character therefore seems to suggest the possibility of alternative forms of communication, implying that memories do not necessarily have to be expressed in the mode of oral testimony, as they were during the TRC. There are other forms and other ‘ways of speaking’ about the past, but Peterson and Suleman do not put forward a value judgment about which form is ‘best’. Instead, they leave the narrative open-ended in order to provoke a wider dialogue about public commemoration and historical violence.
The presence of alternative forms of communication – in Simangaliso’s signing and in the love letter itself – draws attention to the way in which several characters tend to fall back on clichéd language. In a memorable scene, Simangaliso and her grandmother are discussing the symbolism of colours used in the love letter, but the intimate conversation is disrupted by Thandeka when she hears her mother say ‘…it depends on how you surround your blues…with white – for purity and love…pink is a barren colour…black is a suggestion of grief’. Thandeka interrupts, telling them that ‘if there’s one thing the Black Consciousness Movement is supposed to have taught us…it is that black is beautiful and white is far from being pure and innocent’. In the context of the discussion, Thandeka’s statement appears to have limited relevance. This moment encapsulates the extent to which her consciousness continues to be occupied by the rhetoric of the struggle, at the expense of congenial interaction with her family. Later in the film Thandeka has an argument with Simangaliso, using the clichéd phrases of confrontation which become meaningless in this context: ‘You never ever speak to me like that again! Do you hear me!’. The presence of Simangaliso in these moments exposes Thandeka’s frequent inability to use language meaningfully.
Such key moments in the film exemplify the interrogative position taken by the filmmakers. Zulu Love Letter is a beautifully crafted film that represents a new, dialogic approach to communicating the memories of the apartheid past in a way concurrent with the present.
– Caitlin Pearson