Amber R. Reed is an anthropologist and assistant professor of International Studies at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Nostalgia after Apartheid: Disillusionment, Youth, and Democracy published in 2020 by Notre Dame University Press. Her research has investigated how rural Black South Africans experience democracy. She is also currently conducting research on how the African continent is taught in Atlanta-area middle schools.
Nostalgia After Apartheid in South Africa
Why would rural, Black South Africans be nostalgic for life during apartheid, a period of time known for its white supremacist rule and disenfrachisement of non-white populations? As an anthropologist, I have conducted research in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa on and off since 2009, and this is a question my work has sought to answer. People in the rural community where I work frequently talk about how “life was just better during apartheid” or “at least that government knew how to run a country.”
These problematic statements are not a longing for policies of racial segregation; instead, they are a reflection of the illusion of cultural autonomy that the indirect rule of the apartheid state provided, and they are a commentary on the deep dissatisfactions of the African National Congress’ version of democratic rule. I use the concept of nostalgia – a particular framing of the past as preferable to the present – to understand these complex sentiments among Black South Africans today. Nostalgia is a form of remembering that longs for another time, but – critically – it recasts that time in more favorable light than perhaps is truthful.
For rural Black South Africans who are deeply unhappy with the lack of service delivery, high rates of unemployment, and infiltration of practices seen as outside cultural values, nostalgia for life during apartheid paints this time as one in which culture could flourish and life was more stable. I argue that we can use this nostalgia to understand people’s resistance to forms of contemporary democracy.
This is research that has widespread implications beyond South Africa – we see similar forms of nostalgic reimaginings of the past in Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign and Putin’s recasting of Ukrainian and Russian history. Through these examples, we see the ways that understanding nostalgia on a national and political level offers a window into the current global backlash to democracy and rise of populist authoritarianism.