Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
25.07 – 31.08.2019
Sue Williamson was born in England but immigrated to South Africa with her family when she was 7-years-old in 1948. This means that her life in South Africa and her career as an artist have neatly mirrored the country’s most traumatic political period from the election of the National Party in the year she arrived through to the institutionalization of apartheid and the increasingly brutal crackdown on opposition during the 1960s, the uprisings of the late 70s and 80s and the hopeful moment of transition to democracy in 1994.
Williamson’s work whether in printmaking, photography, mixed media or video has consistently focused on memory, trauma and the effects of these on the formation of identity in her adopted home. Her most recent show ‘That Particular Morning’, which was shown at the Goodman Gallery is no exception but it also raises new and pertinent questions about the legacy of the traumatic violence enacted by the apartheid regime and its effects on those it left behind.
The dual channel installation takes its title from a comment made by Doreen Mgoduka in a conversation in which she and her son, Siyah Ndawela Mgoduka discuss the emotional and psychological effects of the murder by members of the Eastern Cape Security Branch of her husband, Mbambalala Glen Mgoduka. The work is co-authored by Williamson and Mgoduka.
Glen Mgoduka was a member of the Eastern Cape police who together with three other black officers was killed in a bomb explosion intended to stop them from revealing potentially damaging information about their white Security Branch superiors and their nefarious doings. The case of the Motherwell Four – as it became known- was one of the most high profile apartheid era cases of humans rights violations investigated during the hearings of the TRC. It involved one of the regime’s most notorious and ruthless enforcers, Eastern Cape Security Branch head Gideon Niewoudt and saw one of the few active attempts by the courts to prosecute him and his fellow perpetrators before Niewoudt’s death in 2005 lead to an unravelling of the prosecution.
For Williamson it is not the facts of the death of Mgoduka that are of primary interest but rather what the affects of his sudden and total absence from their lives have been on his son (who was a year-old at the time) and his widow. Together over 25 minutes of difficult, often uncomfortable but always honest interaction both son and mother come to understand something about themselves and each other that they may never have directly confronted.
Particularly in the case of Siyah Ndawela there is a narrative offered of the change from a young man filled with rage anger and righteous disdain towards the men who killed his father towards a more accepting and willing to forgive man about to enter a new phase of life that allows him to see things differently. That’s because when viewed in conjunction with Williamson’s earlier video piece, It’s a pleasure to meet you from 2016, in which he engages in a similar conversation with Candice Mama – the daughter of a man killed by former Vlakplaas commander Eugene De Kock – where she describes meeting De Kock in jail in an attempt to reconcile and forgive him.
In that film the young Mgoduka has no time for De Kock’s attempts to try and atone for his sins but by the time, three years later he and his mother have their conversation and he learns of the significant role that the man once dubbed Prime Evil had in revealing the truth of what had happened to his father thanks to evidence given against Niewoudt and others during the TRC, his attitude has softened. His willingness to change his mind offers the narrative provided by the two pieces – which form part of Williamson’s No More Fairytales series – a dramatically satisfying if uncertain conclusion. It also shows that beyond the public engagements between victims and perpetrators during the TRC, there are the often more difficult but even more necessary discussions that many victims have not had within their own families that are needed for personal resolution and social acceptance.
We are now living in an era when the failings of the TRC process to provide adequate judicial satisfaction for the families of victims of apartheid crimes have once again fallen under the spotlight and where cases such as those of Nokuthula Simelane, Ahmed Timol, Hoosen Haffejee and Neil Aggett have revealed widespread political interference into the post-apartheid prosecutions promised by Thabo Mbeki upon the handing over of the TRC’s final report to parliament in 2003.
Recent announcements by the NPA of the reopening of several inquests into apartheid era deaths and the prosecution of some perpetrators may have provided a sliver of light at the end of what for some must seem like an endlessly long tunnel insofar as official procedures and the law are concerned. Williamson’s intervention, though small and human-centred, provides a powerful reminder of what these deaths have meant to the day-to-day lives and social interactions of those families.
Taken together the seemingly hopeful recent developments happening in judicial circles and Williamson’s carefully observed and unfussily presented filmed interactions provide an opportunity to remember that we should always remember.
As Don Mattera reminded us so may years ago – memory is still a powerful weapon and even more so in an age when collective amnesia seems to increasingly be preferred to interrogation of the past and its very deep-scarring and long-lasting effects on the psyche of South Africans.