Using the past to build a future has become more important all over the world as we honour Nelson Mandela’s statement: ‘One of our challenges as we build and extend democracy is the need to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of our oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all.’
Internationally, one such project is Liberation Route Europe, a continuously growing remembrance trail that connects important milestones from modern European history, forming a link between the main regions of the Western Allied Forces during World War II (WWII). It follows their advance from southern England to the beaches of Normandy, the Belgian Ardennes, south-eastern provinces of the Netherlands, the Hürtgen Forest and on to Berlin. The route then continues to the Polish city of Gdańsk, where a democratic revolution to overcome the division of Europe was launched nearly two generations later.
Liberation Route Europe allows visitors the chance to discover and experience the route that the Allied Forces took during the final phase of WWII. It focuses on the liberation of continental Europe from Nazi occupation, and specifically, the long-lasting consequences of WWII. It reaches across national borders that have divided the European continent for far too long. It deals with individual nation-states’ selective memories of the war, and calls for an international response by seeking to examine the complex heritage of WWII from multiple historical perspectives. It connects this history with life in modern-day Europe, as well as other parts of the world, underscoring the role of international reconciliation and the promotion of reflection: a reflection on the value of our hard-won freedoms.
Another such international route is the Europe-wide art project Stolpersteine, which honours the lives of victims of the Nazi regime.
Before WWII, the town of Hamburg had one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany and a significant Romani population. Under the Nazi regime, many members of these communities, as well as homosexuals, disabled people and political dissidents, were prosecuted, deported and murdered. Jewish life in Hamburg was erased almost entirely. The Stolpersteine route was started in 1995 to commemorate the victims of fascism by placing commemorative cobblestones in front of their former homes. The German verb stolpern means ‘to stumble’ – indicating that passersby are meant both to stumble over and stumble upon these small yet powerful memorials. Today, the many commemorative cobblestones are reminders throughout the city of the many victims of Nazi oppression.
The square cobblestones are made of concrete, and their top side is covered in brass. Every stone is engraved individually and placed in front of a building to inform passersby of the name, date of birth and date of death of individual victims who once lived there. The Stolpersteine are only about ten cubic centimetres, but together they form a large part of a Europe-wide commemoration project. In total, there are about 56 000 such stones laid out all over the world. Every month, around 400 new stones are added to the project. In Hamburg alone, there are 5 000. The Stolpersteine form part of a broader research project about the lives of minorities under the Nazi regime.
The contribution by South Africa and its military forces to WWII could easily form part of Liberation Route Europe. Troops, men and material were supplied for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian campaign and Allied ships were docked in South Africa’s crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In addition, numerous volunteers flew for the Royal Air Force.
Of the 334 000 men of all races who volunteered for full-time service in the South African Army during WWII, nearly 9 000 were killed in action.
Following WWII, in the 1948 South African general election, the United Party, which had led the government since its foundation in 1933, and its leader, incumbent Prime Minister Jan Smuts, were ousted by the Reunited National Party, led by Daniel François Malan. The National Party was the governing party of South Africa from 1948 until 1994, and was finally disbanded in 2005. Racial separation, apartheid, was enforced in South Africa through a series of laws instituted by the minority white government, which was dominated by Afrikaners of Dutch descent. The laws that provided the legal framework by which the National Party maintained the system of apartheid, excluded the overwhelming majority of South Africans on the grounds of their skin colour. Black Africans, over 70% of the population, would become mere onlookers during a time which would shape their lives for generations. Apartheid also meant that the ruling party rewrote much of South African history, destroyed collected evidence of previous important events, and documented and invented their own history.
In view of this, post-1994, southern Africa started their own Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route project, which is both a national and international memory project aimed at commemorating, celebrating, educating, promoting, preserving, conserving and providing a durable testament of South Africa’s road to independence. The project draws on heritage as testimony and depiction of South Africa’s journey, from the first contact with colonisers to the attainment of democracy, through a series of connected multi-dimensional sites at local, provincial, national and international level. This is done in a manner that promotes the values enshrined in the South African Constitution, namely: a participatory process of identification and documentation of significant sites, formal protection and management of heritage resources and the interpretation and commemoration of the liberation struggle. It uses an integrated approach to leverage the potential of resistance and liberation heritage to help demonstrate a shared past and common future. It taps into the socio-economic potential of this heritage for the benefit of different communities by harnessing the multi-disciplinary strengths of diverse government and other sectors.
The Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route, which appears on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)’s Tentative List of World Heritage and is supported by the African Union (AU), has been envisioned as a means of preserving the legacy of southern Africa’s freedom struggle and, in so doing, becoming a contributor to the cultural and creative industries through heritage tourism. The World Heritage status that the Route aspires to receive is an additional incentive to safeguard this important heritage; the prestige of the label draws visitors, thus not only helping to raise awareness of the history of the country and its people, but also contributing to the local economy. Part of the heightened consciousness of any visitor who traverses this route would be to understand how interwoven the struggles for liberation in southern Africa have been, thus emphasising that resistance to colonial rule was throughout the region and not confined to one place and one time.
The project consists of a series of sites that, in combination, express the key aspects of the South African Liberation experience and the Outstanding Universal Value from the viewpoint of global history. These attributes will also be reflected in other nominations from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Tanzania has been marked as one of the central partners due to the various liberation movements that were based there, including South Africa’s ANC, Angola’s MPLA and Mozambique’s FRELIMO.
Angola has identified two sites as part of the Route, the Fortress of São Francisco do Penedo in Luanda and the site of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Currently, the Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route project consists of some thirteen sites, scattered across South Africa but linked together by the common narrative of the liberation struggle. Robben Island, the University of Fort Hare, the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication (in Kliptown, Soweto), various Nelson Mandela sites (e.g. Qunu and Soweto), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe House, Steve Bantu Biko House, Zanempilo Clinic, Constitution Hill, Chief Albert Luthuli Museum, the Hector Pieterson Memorial, Sol Plaatje House, Liliesleaf Farm and Avalon Cemetery all recall people and events that shaped the past and the present of South Africa.
Besides these sites already identified, some 200 others are presently being studied for possible inclusion in the Route. Recent additions have been the graves and heritage sites of the Cradock Four and the Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance in Hankey, which honours the memory of the Khoi woman Sarah Baartman who was displayed in a human zoo in England and France in the early 19th century. At the time, indigenous people from all over the world were displayed in fairs, circuses and human zoos. Sarah Baartman was ‘displayed’ for what Victorians believed were unusual body features. The display of indigenous humans was part of the 19th century’s idea of the superiority of the Colonial West. Sarah Baartman died in France in 1815. After the humiliation of being displayed as a curiosity, her body was dissected by H Cuvier and stored in a French Museum, the Musee de la Homme.
Negotiations for the return of Sarah Baartman’s remains were initiated by the Griekwa National Conference in the early 1990s. The requests by the Griekwa National Conference and the Khoi and San community led to discussions between the late President Nelson Mandela and French President Francois Mitterand.
After six years of negotiations between the South African and the French Governments, Senator Nicolas About, inspired by the haunting poem of Dianna Ferrus which gave voice to the plight of Sarah Baartman, lobbied the French Parliament to pass legislation providing for the return of the remains of Sarah Baartman. The French Senate voted unanimously for the return of her remains and she was given a Christian burial and her remains were interred on Vergaderingkop in Kouga on Women’s Day, 8 August 2002.
The Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance forms part of the Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route, and is in line with the post-1994 heritage strategy of creating inclusive memorials and monuments to rectify and correcting our distorted South African history towards its true contents, both national and internationally. It must be remembered that the National Party opened the borders wide in 1948 to any fascist immigrant who would support the party’s ideological view and who was willing to implement further fascist restrictions upon the majority of South Africans.
The work of the Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route recalls Fernand Braudel’s work for the Annales School of History, and his compassion for the suffering of marginal people when he articulated that most surviving historical sources come from the literate wealthy classes. He emphasised the importance of the ephemeral lives of slaves, serfs, peasants, and the urban poor, demonstrating their contributions to the wealth and power of their respective masters and societies. ‘The earth is, like our skin, fated to carry the scars of ancient wounds.’
Unless we rectify and expose the South African historical facts that were previously distorted, there will be no chance of ‘building and extending our democracy to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of our oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all.’
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