Writing to fulfil a quest – Fellows’ seminar by Jonny Steinberg

“I don’t want to convey a message. You can never be so presumptuous or arrogant to assume that you know how someone is going to read your book,” said Jonny Steinberg. “But my books have a quest – something I want to work out. There are a series of questions. A book is given structure by a search.”

Steinberg - 1STIAS Fellow Jonny Steinberg during his seminar presentation on 15 February 2018

Steinberg, who is based at the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, was giving STIAS fellows some insight into his writing process as well as his current book project.

Through examining an incident in 1990s South Africa and it consequences, Steinberg aims to explore the question of memory; the context in which we remember and forget; and what happens to our moral wellbeing if the foundation on which we build our life is not true.

“The fact that our memories are subject to extreme vagaries is unremarkable,” he said. “No one disagrees with that. It’s what happens next that’s interesting. What one does when one ‘mis-remembers’, and what is the meaning contained in the revised memory. The examination of memory and its vagaries can elicit truths that no other scholarly method can do.”

“Of course there is a point where memory and its accuracy has enormous moral and legal consequences,” he continued, “where whether memory is factual or not does matter.”

The book will examine the story of Fusi Mofokeng who in 1992 was convicted of having taken part in a conspiracy to murder and was imprisoned for 20 years. Mofokeng believed he was framed and has dedicated his life to proving his innocence.

“I stumbled upon this story by accident,” said Steinberg. “My primary interest was investigating this person’s life. I’ve spent five years interviewing and spending time with him. I came to know and respect him. I want to respect the story and the memory.”

“The Apartheid state in its dying years robbed a young man of his freedom. The old regime inflicted the punishment and the new regime didn’t do anything about it.” (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was unable to overturn the judgement.)

However, despite examining the court archives and interviewing about 300 people including some high-level ANC officials, Steinberg admits “I still don’t know what actually happened.”

It’s clear that Mofokeng was the product of a hugely unjust system. The trial that convicted him was severely compromised, with allegations of torture of the accused and coercion and bullying of witnesses. Much of the evidence was circumstantial and the motive unclear. “What happened to him was wrong. If he could have read law books this would not have happened to him. It doesn’t happen to people who are well educated and resourced.”

What is interesting is how Mofokeng has changed his life since leaving prison. “He was 44 when he walked to freedom and had spent most of his adult life behind bars,” said Steinberg. “Within five years he had made an extraordinary success of his life. Right now he is a patriarch of his family and the breadwinner, which is remarkable when one considers the context of economic stress that greeted him when he was released.”

“It’s almost like a shadow of a successful future was accompanying him all the time he was in prison.”

“How did he manage to do so well?” asked Steinberg. “I believe part of the answer lies in the education he received in prison as well as the connections he made. He left prison with good intentions and a desire for upward mobility.”

“Also what helped is that people believed him – the TRC, the prison authorities. He could let go of anger and move forward because there was an authoritative audience that believed his story.”

“The most powerful resource he had at his disposal was his memory. He deployed memory as a tool because that’s what he had. His memory allows him to tell a story that makes sense of the racial oppression that shaped his life.”

Steinberg also pointed out now that despite evidence of his hugely deprived early life, some of which was presented on the witness stand, Mofokeng paints a picture of an idyllic youth “filled with good memories and nostalgia”.

“He is a man whose memories of childhood and youth are washed in pastels. It’s like he was remade while in prison – furnished with a new set of memories.”

Steinberg will use this story to unpack some of the psychoanalytic and anthropological arguments around memory work.

“Many of the ‘wars’ in psychoanalysis are around memories of violence and violation, and how they shape us,” he said. Memory work is also strongly bound with politics and historical and cultural variations.

“I’m not sure we can ever know which of our memories is false. And to complicate things, we sometimes both know and do not know, all at the same time, that a memory is false.”

When asked more generally how he chooses his subjects, Steinberg replied: “It’s about choosing people who can talk about themselves and also say something about the world around them. People who I can throw my imagination at, where I can live in their shoes imaginatively for a moment and ask why they made the decisions they did.”

“If you are going to play by the rules of non-fiction you can’t step over that line and pretend to know what is in someone’s head,” he added.

“The book is a social history of the first two decades of evolving South African democracy through an examination of ordinary lives.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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