Between the Horror Show and the Wall of Silence : Reflections on fiction and truth in the transition processes of South Africa and Argentina


  • Oscar Hemer


South Africa and Argentina are both extraordinarily rich in cultural production and moreover share a common experience of transition from a traumatic near past; in South Africa the system of racial segregation known as Apartheid and the culmination of violence in the ?interregnum years?; in Argentina the latest military dictatorship and its ?dirty war? on the militant left, which took the character of extermination. The concept of transition has different connotations in the two cases, primarily due to the diametrically opposed political experiences. The demise of the apartheid state was conceived as the victory of the liberation struggle, whereas Argentina?s return to democracy was in a way the result of a double defeat; the annihilation of the revolutionary guerillas was followed by the humiliation for their vanquishers in the disastrous war against Great Britain over the Falkland/Malvinas islands. The inventory of the cultural production of the transition distinguishes between reactive and proactive expressions with regard to the disputed near past. The first category applies to most of the books and films that were produced in the aftermath of the truth commissions. Like the contemporary media coverage of the Argentinean Conadep and the South African TRC, many of the early narrations had a sensationalist tinge and contributed to el show del horror, as it was called in Argentina. In South Africa, the horrors were to be played down for the reconciliatory purpose, whereas Argentina soon saw the emergence and prevalence of what could be regarded as another form of reactive response; the dissociation from ?the failed utopias?, through irony or mockery. The reactive expressions basically reproduce the fictions that are circulating in the society. The disputed past is signaled by common markers that tend to turn into clich?s; in Argentina the Mother come Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo, the adopted orphan come adolescent in search of his/her disappeared parents, and, as counterpart, the distinguished gentleman next-door with a shady past as torturer and murderer; in South Africa the disillusioned former freedom fighter come drug addict and petty criminals vs. the incompetent affirmative action beneficiary or the noveau riche black businessman in his conspicuous BMW. Generally speaking, these narratives are mirroring the transition in a way that may be interesting from an ethnographic point of view, but neither as art nor as social critique. The proactive strategy, by contrast, implies an interrogation of society and history by means of fiction (or documentary forms with fictional elements). Both South Africa and Argentina abound with examples of such interrogations that arguably have played a proactive role in the transition process, displaying public lies and self-deceptions, deconstructing prevailing myths rather than forging new identities.






F. National stereotypes 2 / Nationale stereotyper 2