Refocusing the traumatic past (an essay in two parts)

  • Maureen de Jager Head of Department, Fine Art Department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
Keywords: South African War, refocusing, “doing history”, photography, estrangement, embodied research


In the greater landscape of South Africa’s traumatic past, the South African War of 1899-1902 is arguably “old history”, surpassed in time and importance by more pressing traumas. Moreover, because it was usurped by Afrikaner nationalism as a myth of national origin and used to justify claims of Afrikaner sovereignty, it is also often seen as “old Afrikaner history”: at best, an episode of limited relevance to the many South Africans effectively written out of this narrative; at worst, a platform for nostalgic hankering by a conservative few.

The following is an attempt to reconsider the South African War in a manner that addresses both the assumptions pervading this history and the prevalence of its residues and traces in a present-day, “decolonising” South Africa. My premise is that the War, like all traumatic pasts, is neither stable nor resolved – less a closed chapter than an open book, subject to perpetual rereading. Precisely because this past is unfinished, looking again has the potential to focus past and present relationally, illuminating not only the vicissitudes of what has been, but also the co-ordinates of the seer, here and now.

I first encountered this history (in a resonant way) through the eyes of a witness: my great-grandmother, Maria, who was captured by British soldiers in 1901 and interned in the Winburg Concentration Camp. Shortly before her death (in 1946), Maria distilled her experiences into a handwritten, 56-page memoir, which was passed down through subsequent generations. I recall immersing myself in this document, with its brittle pages and fading ink, a vicarious spectator inserted into the space behind Maria’s eyes.

Later, I came to see Maria’s narrative differently: refracted through other archives and narratives; through critical accounts of the War; through the agendas and ideologies pervading the time of its writing (some four decades after “the fact”). I saw it as a belated “memory log”, where memory is a pliant repository shaped by the context of remembrance and, in Maria’s case, necessarily occluded by trauma. What her narrative evinces is not the unequivocal “truth” of experience, but the visage generated by her own sense-making, mediated by time and language, to be mediated again and again by the reader’s interpretative lenses.

In taking the motif of “refocusing” as a starting point, this article – essentially a reflection, in two parts, on my own ambivalent apprehensions of the War – considers the literal and figurative technologies of looking that both enable and imperil access to the elusive past. I suggest that “doing history” is a mediated, subjective, embodied experience, one that both locates and dis-locates the researcher. For the very act of looking back (and looking again) shifts the vantage point from whence one looks, reciprocally. In this sense, “refocusing” could be seen as productively estranging, transforming both seer and seen. It does not “return” the researcher to a stable and familiar past (and its illusory “home truths”), but opens up mutable, multiple sightlines to (and from) a precarious present.