Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 June 2005
This paper reports a study of the situations of disadvantaged older people in contemporary South African townships. It draws from their own accounts that were collected through ethnographic research in day centres and care homes. Most of the informants had experienced a succession of serious material, psychological, social and cultural losses. Their lives had been characterised by violence, inequality, disruption and poverty. A dominant theme in their accounts is that they can hardly ‘get through’ their lives. Their thankless, even alienated, situations are not only a function of personal losses but also have much to do with the recent political and social history of South Africa. The colonial and Apartheid eras have by and large been excluded from the country's collective memory, with the result that older people's experiences of those times are not valued as affirmational reminiscence or for shaping a kin group's common identity. Expressed recollections have acquired a different function, of being a means of articulating moral judgements on the present. The result is that memories, rather than bringing the generations together, have the opposite effect and widen the gap in understanding between the older and younger generations. This in turn has serious effects on older people's wellbeing. The silencing of memories reflects the society's radical break with the past, which has made it difficult for younger people to mourn or sympathise with older people's losses. While far from helpless victims, many of the older township residents lack meaningful frames by which to locate themselves in contemporary South African society.