Sello Hatang owns a pair of black leather hiking boots enclosed in a glass case. The boots are covered in a layer of dust and look more beaten down than they are. They are from his first hike up the Drakensberg mountains. The dirt on the boots holds more value than the retail value of the boots themselves because it is that which tells the story, his story; a story which would have otherwise been washed away by fading memory’s proclivity towards simplistic neatness.
Sello Hatang is current CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The North West native succeeded the then-NMF head Achmat Dangor in 2013. Previously he had worked as the head of information communications and spokesperson for the South African Human Rights Commission and was director of the SA History Archive (SAHA) at Wits University. Sello serves on the boards of SAHA and the Open Democracy Advice Centre and is a founding member and member of the advisory council of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC). He is a man of understated stature and firm presence, able to break down the complex nuances of history with a jovial disposition. The dirty boots in a glass case are a testament to his roots in studying archival science, a course he pursued at the prompting of a high school history teacher. He studied the processes of building and preserving archives to ensure that history is not distorted by acts of nature or acts of man. His first foray into the job market, however, was as a teacher in the mid-90s. It was a career, he mentions with wry amusement, that lasted all of three months. He then applied for a position at the National Archives.
In 1999 Sello Hatang was seconded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of the archival collections that he worked on while there was the IDASA collection. The Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa (IDASA) was a think-tank established in 1986 that was created due to the fact that democratic change in the country had, by then, become inevitable. The work of the organisation was to engage with citizens from all walks of life in order to envision a way forward. “It was about how democracy was imagined,” he says. “What kind of democracy did we want?”
Archives can bring pain, they can open wounds and they can take you back to places you don’t want to be.
The reconciliatory nature of his TRC work did not blind him into believing that the nature of memory, and archiving, was benevolent. We spoke of the tendency of many families to not see value in the keeping of records as a family tradition. Some families even go as far as destroying artefacts from the past, such as letters. “Archives can bring pain, they can open wounds and they can take you back to places you don’t want to be,” he says. This is especially true with many black families in South Africa. Our past is filled with pain, wounds and places that many people would like to forget. Yet helping people forget is not the work of an archivist.
As the head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Hatang's work revolves around the legacy of one man and its intrinsic interconnectedness with the histories of many other men and women. How then, I ask him, does the story of one man evolve into the national identity of a country? The answer lies in how we interact with our history. If a person accesses a set of core memories from their predecessor, and if those memories resonate with the person, that person then augments their own lived experiences into those memories, imbuing them with the person’s own aspirations. Those memories then become a new act; no longer bound by the past. That is how a legacy is created. It just so happened that Nelson Mandela’s legacy resonated with millions of people.
But Hatang points out that Nelson Mandela himself was acutely aware of how his legacy could be misconstrued in the eyes of those searching for an untainted icon. He pointedly refers to an entry in one of Madiba’s journals in which the former statesman jotted, “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It is difficult to fully grasp the consequences of a people’s detachment from their own history.
“Archives are not just about the preservation of old records. They are about the memory of the nation. They are about how the nation sees itself, how it imagines its future,” Hatang says. The recently released documentary about the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela caused waves around the country, especially in its tragic synchronicity with her passing. Many people, especially black women, found themselves questioning the memory of their nation, or at the very least, how that memory had been presented.
“What pains me is the pitting of the two legacies (that of Nelson and Winnie Mandela) against each other,” he says. Yet he is not dismissive of those who hold opposing views. He says that people look for icons we can resonate with. “We are always looking for heroes,” he explains, “heroes that can affirm us and our disaffection, heroes that can affirm how we have been wronged.”
Nelson Mandela became an icon because, at the time, his incarceration affirmed the plight of a people incarcerated by an unjust system that imprisoned them in poverty and brutality. His freedom represented the freedom of the people.
Our relationship with history changes when our own relationship with ourselves, internally and externally, changes. When Mam’ Winnie’s book, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, was released in 2013, not much was said of it. Yet when the documentary came out, it came out in a world where black women’s demand for the wrongs that they had endured had reached their peak. On that fertile soil, our national identity, from the point of view of women simply had to change. It had to become more inclusive, less patriarchal and far more cognisant of women’s agency.
It is difficult to fully grasp the consequences of a people’s detachment from their own history. Perhaps it is easier to understand how it can affect an individual. Alzheimer's is a disease that robs the mind of its memories. It eats away at a person’s short-term memory, then it makes a person forget who they are; their own identity fades. Eventually, in its last stages, the lungs of a person with Alzheimer’s simply forget to breathe, and their heart forgets to beat. That is the world that awaits us when people like Sello Hatang do not exist. His job is not to simply keep Madiba’s memory alive. It is to remind us that our own memories are not only keeping us alive but also serve as the fuel that moves us. His job is to help us form a healthy relationship with our history; one where we are empowered by the legacies that we inherit rather than be crippled by the pain of the past.
“Hurt can numb our imagination,” he says. “It numbs us as a people, to the point where we are unable to look at things differently, it holds us back from doing things differently.”