June is celebrated as Youth Month in South Africa, with a specific focus on 16 June in tribute to the school pupils who lost their lives during the 1976 Soweto Uprising. With this contribution to Creative Feel, Dr Noel Lungile Zwelidumile Solani of the DITSONG: Museums of South Africa’s National Museum of Cultural History takes a look at the liberation struggle narratives in South Africa, with a focus on museums, memorials and monuments.
The abolishing of the apartheid system brought with it the transformation of society in all its facets. This transformation also affected the field of memory work, namely museums, memorials and monuments. This change was also extended to the renaming of towns and cities or looked at differently restoring the indigenous names of those towns, cities, rivers, airports and other memory sites. This change, it could be argued, was influenced by the dictum that culture is a weapon with great influence and impact on the lives of citizens.
In 1998, Thabo Mbeki in a parliamentary national debate argued that ‘nation building is the construction of the reality and the sense of common nationhood, which would result from the abolition of disparities in the quality of life among South Africans based on the racial, gender and geographical inequalities we all inherited from the past.’ The objective of this debate was to highlight the need for transformation and the extent to which South Africans have travelled in reversing the effect and impact of racial laws. The heritage sector also experienced demands for transformation that began to intensify with the writing and production of the White Paper for Arts and Culture. In these debates, Bridget Mabandla argued that in the arts and cultural sphere, the aim was to ‘enable South Africans to reclaim their heritage and to develop their language and cultural identities. To provide resources for previously neglected communities and to create conditions for their economic empowerment, since nation building is essentially a cultural issue.’
In other words, the objectives of the post-apartheid project were to build a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa as was proclaimed in the Freedom Charter, which was the guiding document of the ANC. In the case of the arts, this was to be achieved through arts, culture and heritage institutions. The creation of legacy projects in the post-apartheid state was one of the ways in which the government sought to address the transformation of the cultural and heritage landscape.
In 1979, Mbeki argued that ‘all societies bear the imprint, the birthmarks of their own past… the imperative of [their] epoch [which] has charged [them] with the task of transforming [themselves] from the status of objects of history to that of masters of history.’ It would seem that the creation of legacy projects was aimed at giving voice to those that official history had marginalised. This was in addition to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which stated that there should be memorials created to remember those who suffered under the hands of the apartheid regime.
The creation of new institutions has not been the prerogative of the national government only, local government and non-governmental organisations also created institutions of memory, sometimes based on local experiences. Some of these institutions include the Red Location Museum in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality and District Six Museum in Cape Town.
The Red Location Museum is meant to remember and commemorate the social conditions and resistance of the people of Port Elizabeth. In the orientation space that also doubles as a reception area, the reason for its establishment is captured in the following words:
‘Red Location seeks to remember the past in many ways. It plans to depict the notion of memory, portraying both the horrors of institutionalised racism and the heroic methods of the anti-apartheid movement. The museum seeks to serve as stimuli for upgrading the destitute living conditions of the Red Location shack settlement, while celebrating those who fought to end apartheid. It is therefore designed not only as a tourist attraction for foreign and local visitors, but also as an internal part of the surrounding community, regarding education, arts and cultural activities, and also a space for heritage practitioners in the metro.’
Here we find the twin strategy of community development and memory coming out clearly. Here, community development means that the museum should be able to stimulate the local economy through tourism and be able to facilitate both formal and informal job opportunities.
The use of memory projects to facilitate development and access to markets through the selling of mementoes to tourists and export of such internally produced products to other countries is one of the ways in which state planners think they could leverage heritage to create opportunities for local communities where these projects are established.
In addition to the demands made on heritage to contribute to economic development, cultural and heritage institutions are also charged with the responsibility to significantly contribute to nation building and social cohesion.
At the Nelson Mandela Museum, the liberation legacies are represented through the use of the auto/biography of Nelson Mandela and his contemporaries. The life of Nelson Mandela, from the village where he was born to his father’s responsibilities within his community, is used to show the impact colonialism had on the lives of Africans. This is particularly so when one considers that by the early 1900s, in practice, chiefs and their subjects had long lost real power, they governed on the behest of the colonial governments.
Secondly, the museum situates the auto/biography of Nelson Mandela at the centre of education institutions in the Eastern Cape, which were established by the missionaries with the support of the colonial governments to convert the native to Christianity and make him/her a subject of the colonial government, stripped of all real power. Thirdly, the museum locates the auto/biography of Nelson Mandela in the industrial towns of the Transvaal, the mines, the townships and the struggle for survival to demonstrate the oppressive nature of the colonial and apartheid governments.
The main aim of this is to locate the auto/biography of Nelson Mandela within the broader struggles of the African people and their response to the colonial and apartheid governments that shaped the ideology that they later ascribed to and for which some of them were ‘prepared to die’. In essence, the museum narrative seeks to show that the struggle against segregation and apartheid has always been a struggle for equality and a non-racial society.
The location of Mandela’s auto/biography in broader struggles by the Nelson Mandela Museum is also demonstrated by its outreach exhibitions. The museum has an exhibition on Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli. The starting point of the exhibition is a narration of the story when Chief Albert Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize on the verge of the ANC entering the armed struggle and when Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize on the verge of the resolution of the South African conflict.
The other exhibition that locates Nelson Mandela within broader struggles is the Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks: Children’s Letters, Global Lessons exhibition. The exhibition is based on letters that were written to both Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks by children. This exhibition seeks to show that the national democratic struggle in South Africa required the effort of South Africans to mobilise the international community to be part of that global effort to defeat the apartheid regime by isolating the apartheid government.
In 2006, Mbeki made a call at the opening of the Luthuli Museum, that legacy projects should ‘ensure that as South Africans we capture, remember and celebrate the totality of South African history, particularly those aspects of our history that were deliberately neglected, falsified, denigrated, ridiculed and presented in a manner that sought to entrench the anti-human ideology of racial superiority and inferiority.’
Similar to the Nelson Mandela Museum, the Luthuli Museum seeks to ‘let the spirit of Luthuli speak to all’ and its mission is to ‘conserve, uphold, promote and propagate the life, values, philosophies and legacy of the late Chief Albert Luthuli against apartheid oppression’ and with the values that seek to be the ‘catalyst for social change, diversity, community development and the promotion of a non-racial and non-sexist democratic South Africa.’
The construction of statues and memorials dates back to antiquity, it is the result of the need by humanity to remember those events or individuals that had an impact on their lives, or symbolise an impact that they had in human history. In South Africa, especially in the Eastern Cape, there seem to be three types of memorials. The first type is those that are carefully planned, constructed, presented to the public through unveiling – they are, in other words, representations of events or people.
The second type is a memorial that is a product of an unfortunate incident where graves of the martyrs of the liberation struggle form parts of the memory of the struggle, among these are burial sites (i.e. the Cradock Four), and sites of massacres (i.e. the Queenstown Massacre). The last one is an unplanned and unrecognised memorial to a system that was rejected by the population and which was defeated in the elections of 1994. This kind of memorial is found in the form of ruins. Graves themselves have become sites of memorialisation where people go to remember certain events in their locality. In localities where there is a limited budget to invest in grandstanding memorialisation, cemeteries become sites of remembrance. Thus, the auto/biography of the liberation struggle could not be complete without these alternative sites of recollection.
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