Forgetting Responsibility: Hannah Arendt and the Work of (Undoing) Psychic Resistance in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Kylie Thomas, Sergio Alloggio

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


This paper engages with some of the writings of Hannah Arendt in order to draw a political parallel between the complex nexus of responsibility, judgement and sociality in post-war Germany and post-apartheid South Africa. In her writings on post-war Germany Arendt described the failure on the part of the German public to recognise and respond to what she terms “the horror” of Nazism. In her report on the aftermath of war, written on her return to Germany from the United States in 1949, Arendt recounts how she found “an inability to feel”, “absence of mourning for the dead” and a “general lack of emotion” in those she encountered in Germany at that time. In this paper we connect her insights on post-war Germany to her later work on the difficulties of judging; this allows us to cast light on the problem of the evasion of responsibility in contemporary South Africa. Read in conjunction with some of the concepts developed by Sigmund Freud, Arendt’s later work helps us to open up the trans-generational trauma of apartheid and to approach the redoubled form of repression that, we argue, characterises the post-apartheid condition. We employ psychoanalysis not as a therapeutics but as a means for approaching questions about the constitutive relation between the psychic and the political, drawing in particular on Freud’s theorisations of the meanings of symptoms, repression, resistance and memory. In conclusion, via Theodor Adorno’s essay “The meaning of working through the past” we advocate for a post-apartheid pedagogy that seeks to unearth the problem of responsibility from the sinking sands of reconciled national history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-46
Number of pages8
JournalAfrican Yearbook of Rhetoric
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Apartheid
  • Arendt
  • Education
  • Adorno
  • Psycho-political
  • History and Memory
  • Nazism


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