Perception is Power: an everyday archive

‘Perception is Power’ was written for the exhibition “Finding Memories: additions to an everyday archive” that opened on the 11th  February 2021. 

This archive, which re-centers and prioritises everyday experiences of Namibians, comes at a time when the very idea of ‘everyday-ness’ is in flux. As we enter 2021, many of us are taking stock of the ways in which huge changes have become part of our daily routines – speaking to just how adaptable human beings are. 

Looking at this through the lens of our adaptability, archiving our history takes on a new significance. Our personal archives mean something different to all of us. Photos, images and songs can bring up complex feelings – rage, joy, shame, guilt, grief, inspiration – for those who remember them personally and for those who can only imagine what it was like to live through those moments.

While looking through my family’s personal photo archives, and coaxing out the stories behind seemingly innocuous images, I have been struck by two things. First, that historical images need not always capture some watershed moment when scales were tipped and lives were changed. Some of the most powerful stories and memories spoke to the seemingly mundane. Some pictures were taken simply for the joy of it, to remember the unremarkable. 

My second thought, when hearing about what happened before and after the moments captured on film, was “how were my parents able to embrace the everyday when all around them the world was designed to break them down?”

For many of us born into Namibia’s democratic era, the trauma of apartheid seems unfathomable. Generations of Namibians lived in a world where being black made almost every aspect of life more difficult. The images and recollections that dominate our national narrative focus disproportionately on the trauma faced by Namibians over the centuries.

However, many of the stories and images of our personal archives often show just how adaptable we have been. Our history, captured as it is in this exhibition, is a record of our resilience. And it is our knowledge of the stories behind these images that make our resilience clear. A photograph of my young aunts laughing together may appear to simply capture a happy moment between siblings. But once I know that one of my aunts was harassed by PLAN soldiers to the point that she went into exile, and that my grandfather was absent for months at a time due to the migrant labour system, and that my aunts and uncles were worried about one of their brothers who went missing and was never found, that image becomes so much more than what it appears on the surface.

When we fail to archive the everyday moments with the appropriate historical context, we miss out not only on the opportunity to name and acknowledge our traumas, but also the opportunity to broaden the narrative of our history beyond the experience of trauma. The silence around Namibia’s national memory is deafening, and speaks to a (failed) attempt to leave trauma behind by ignoring it. Trauma, however, cannot be ignored for long periods of time without manifesting in destructive ways. 

The way that young Namibians used social media to document the protest itself, and the moments before and after, provided insight into what it might look like to document our history as it happens. They resoundingly rejected the culture of repression around the trauma and violence they face. In embracing all the complications of protests and activism, they seem closer to finding a sense of healing than many of our leaders.

Our nation’s unprocessed trauma is evidenced by the violence of those in power, by the consistency of gender-based and intimate partner violence, by the lack of resources for our most vulnerable. Our trauma shows in the lack of empathy for those whose lives are made more difficult by things completely out of their control such as race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Our trauma makes itself known in the way the younger generation is treated, as ungrateful and unaware of just how good they have it.

This last point bears further examination. The loudest and most consistent calls for an acknowledgement of the trauma of the past come from the so-called ‘born free’ generation. There are many possible explanations for the consistent focus on trauma from the generation that has recently come of age (of which I count myself a member). We may have not experienced the sanctioned atrocities of the apartheid regime, but we were raised with the constant reminder of the heroism of those who fought against it. Bringing up one’s ‘struggle credentials’ is a well-worn political strategy in Namibia, especially in the face of public criticism. At the same time, the ‘born-free’ generation has had to contend with the refusal or inability to properly recount and document the events of that era. Notable examples include SWAPO leadership’s refusal to release information about the alleged torture and murder of SWAPO members in exile. (1) 

It is this silence, which many leaders have tried to fill with narratives about moving on and looking forward, that the Everyday Archive (and other projects) tries to fill, in its own small way. We have to claim the way our histories are archived and, in doing so, name and claim the narratives born from those histories. We do this for those who lived through the colonial and apartheid eras, in respect of their resilience and their ability to claim the everyday in the midst of injustice.

But we also do it for ourselves, because we realise that trauma is carried by people, and passed down from one generation to the next. Trauma affects the way we relate to one another, to our families and friends and communities. It can affect the way parents raise their children, or the way teachers pass on knowledge. And while sometimes trauma can increase one’s capacity for empathy and kindness, the majority of people in Namibia cannot access the tools (psychosocial services, mental health care and treatment, safe spaces in their communities etc) that they need to safely process their experiences.

Here we reach the crux of the matter: the point is not to eliminate trauma from our memories or archives – it’s debatable whether that is even possible. What is possible, however, is acknowledging the past in all it’s complexity so that we can move forward with an ethos of deliberation and care. The process of archiving, of processing both the everyday and the traumatic, can and should be a part of our national healing. It may be uncomfortable, as it forces people to confront their contributions to our country’s history, for better or worse. However, as the many violent manifestations of trauma in our society have shown us, we can not afford to continue building a society on such vague and de-contexualised foundations.

What happens when we archive in the moment: #ShutItAllDown

An interesting contemporary contrast to make is in Namibia’s arguably most notable protest in many years. The #ShutItAllDown movement that spread across the country in 2020 marked a departure from protest as usual in Namibia, in many ways. Demographically, the age of the people who protested skewed heavily towards the youth, and not just the incredibly broad definition of ‘youth’ (those aged between 15 and 30 years) used in government policies – many of those who took to the streets to protest the government’s lackluster response to gender-based and intimate partner violence were high-school and university aged. Many had not been eligible to vote in the National and Regional elections that took place in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Unsatisfied with the limited ‘acceptable’ forms of political participation (i.e. voting periodically), young Namibians rallied and created a nationwide protest, using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to not only coordinate their action, but also to document the process.

This marked what was perhaps the starkest difference between #ShutItAllDown and other protests in the country. Most often, the majority of Namibian citizens learn about protests (and their relative success or impact) through television and radio, both of which are platforms dominated by state broadcasters. In practice, the state can control how protest is perceived and the narrative around surrounding protestors. This is not to say that state-sanctioned media is not to be trusted. However, in cases where a specific narrative would benefit the state, a plurality of voices is crucial. Many aspects of protest and the experiences of the protestors do not fit in with the image the state has created for itself.

Here, the other defining feature of this protest came into focus. The use of social media and other digital resources allowed the protestors to document the protest from their perspective. A veritable flood of first-person recordings put the viewer in the protests, flowing on the wave of anger, frustration, camaraderie, and even delight that marked the event. Interactions with police officers, some of whom appeared to be amused by the proceedings, gave context to the demands of the protestors for a sensitised and empathetic police force when dealing with gender-based and intimate partner violence.

In building up the Everyday Archive, the complexity of working with archival material from the past, before I was even born, was a constant point of introspection. The stories behind the photos I contributed, for example, were far removed from me personally, despite my relationship with the subjects. Some of the relatives pictured exist only in my memory, as I never met them. Pictures of my young parents in white-dominated (or otherwise marginalising) spaces cannot capture the weight of the angry stares that feature in the stories behind the moment captured. 

Perhaps it is unreasonable to have such high expectations for mere images. In a time when camera film (and cameras themselves) were in short supply, taking a picture was not something that was taken lightly. For my family, photos were taken to commemorate moments when the whole family was together, and ostensibly capture positive and happy memories. However, rather than seeing that as detracting from their value, it helps to give insight into the value that the ‘everyday’ held for my family. Despite the racial violence and trauma that affected most aspects of their lives, they still chose to use precious film to document the moments of familiarity and joy. Photos were used to document moments my family did not want to forget, and that makes them all the more valuable.

The Everyday Archive, as an attempt to build a narrative retrospectively, is a way to create a multiplicity of narratives and stories about Namibia’s past. As our history is complicated and made more whole, it becomes less unfathomable (especially to younger generations) and less divorced from our experiences in the present.

The Everyday Archive is part of a project to create a living and accessible archive after the fact. While there may be limitations in terms of objectivity and reliability, one would be hard pressed to find an archive dedicated to a truly objective representation of history. This archive, like many others, is a tool. In this case, the goal is to recognise the value of moments we commemorate, create a space that sheds light on the complexity of living through trauma, and remind ourselves that oppression and the everyday are not mutually exclusive.

The way we can and will remember #ShutItAllDown is vastly different from the way we remember protest against both colonial and apartheid regimes. Through this living, ever-growing archive, we can track protest from its inception to the action itself to the aftermath, for all involved. What has been documented is not only a testament to the very real trauma of the protestors, but also of their resilience. More importantly, the continuing archiving of this protest is evidence of young Namibians taking ownership of their stories, and therefore the narrative of the present. There is power in knowing that your collective experience will shape the way the present is historicised.

Complicating existing archives

Documenting resistance is always linked to access. During #ShutItAllDown, access to digital recording devices and social media platforms were instrumental in the protestors’ experience being fairly represented in the face of the state’s portrayal of the protest. During the apartheid era, the amount of equipment needed to capture the oppression by the minority against indigenous Namibians was inaccessible to all but the elite and privileged. And the nature of apartheid all but guaranteed that those people would be white men. In addition to these advantages, white men were afforded a freedom of movement that far exceeded anyone else’s, allowing them to capture violent and traumatic moments that would otherwise have been near unprovable for those who experienced them.

The ethics here are understandably complex. The documentation of the atrocities of apartheid certainly affected the global pressure on the South African government to dismatle the apartheid regime.

However, many of these images play into the presentation of black bodies and black pain as consumable, a trend that continues to this day. Many images are shared and even sold with little regard for the subjects (if they are even identified) or whether they benefit from the reproduction of their memories. This history of black experiences told through mostly white and male lenses forces us to ask the question, “who gets to take photos and, more importantly, who gets to keep them?” 

This archive is therefore an opportunity for Namibians, especially black Namibians, to reclaim ownership of their own histories and narratives. The Everyday Archive is an attempt to remind ourselves that we are more than our pain and trauma. Instead, we are part of a larger community. We are all trying to reconcile our trauma with the seemingly unremarkable, and acknowledge the complexity of being human.

(1) See SWAPO Captive: A Comrade’s Experience of Betrayal and Torture by Oiva Angula; Lubango and After: ‘Forgotten History’ as Politics in Contemporary Namibia by  John S. Saul and Colin Leys (Journal of Southern African Studies, 29:2, June 2003)

Visit the archive here.