Dying to forget: History, memory and the intergenerational transfer of trauma in South Africa

THIS project is about the discipline of history and the intergenerational transfer of trauma in South Africa. How do individuals who never personally experienced the trauma of apartheid rule nonetheless claim to suffer from trauma as a result of apartheid? How are historians to make sense of the anger of the born-­free generation—those born after the formal collapse of apartheid in 1994—towards their parents’ generation, as well as the born-­frees’ rejection of the political settlement that brought about the New South Africa? Is this anger an expression of a historical trauma? If so, how is the trauma of the past transmitted across generations? Drawing on insights from a range of disciplines, this project seeks to answer the above questions in ways that might help us think differently about our attempts to forge a new South Africa.
The project draws on a range of historical sources. My aim is to understand how ordinary South Africans remember histories of violence and how their memories of this violence are shared across generations. How, in short, do these memories become History? What does it mean to remember your parents’ pain of humiliation when you yourself never experienced that humiliation? The project is motivated in part by an attempt to understand how South Africa’s past has shaped the way the discipline of History has developed in South Africa.

Project leader(s):
  • Jacob Dlamini (Department of History, Princeton University)

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