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Southern Africa Report Archive

South African writer and cultural activist Luli Callinicos worries aloud (during a recent Toronto visit) about the dangers of depoliticizing, in the name of "reconciliation," the people's own history of oppression and resistance. This is a history that, Callinicos reports, is struggling to find its voice, with important, potentially positive, implications, within the culture of a new South Africa. Fortunately, she can also report that on this terrain - the terrain of "heritage" - real progress is being made despite countervailing pressures. So, in a phrase: "Historians of the world, unite." Workers, too. (jbv)

vol 11 no 3

Democratizing Heritage: The South African Challenge
Shelley Butler

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
Page 22



Shelley Butler is a graduate student in anthropology at Toronto's York University.

Heritage has become a contested terrain in post-apartheid South Africa where, historically, state museums and monuments either mirrored the colonial legacy or were tributes to Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid racial ideology. Currently, the future of apartheid-era museums, monuments, place names, signs, public holidays and government buildings is being debated, as the new government seeks to democratize heritage and offer fair representation to South Africa's diverse cultures.

During the last few years, a number of proposals to create museums which document the legacy of apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggle have been put forward. Thus, while heritage is often associated with conservative politics and the preservation of the status quo, in South Africa heritage promises to become a tool for social change and empowerment. A key challenge in post-apartheid South Africa is to redress past injustice; museums can play a significant role in documenting the past, as well as providing a forum for discussing the future.

A Toronto workshop

The challenges of democratizing heritage in South Africa were the subject of a recent workshop in Toronto facilitated by Luli Callinicos, a historian and cultural worker. Callinicos is involved with the History Workshop at Witwatersrand University and the new Worker's Museum and Library in Johannesburg; she is the author of books in the series, A People's History of South Africa; and she has served on the national Arts Council Task Group (ACTAG), which has recently completed a report on heritage. Drawing on these experiences, Callinicos spoke with a group of cultural workers, activists and academics about the challenges of linking heritage to social change.

Callinicos also stressed the specific challenge for the linking of heritage to social justice issues that is posed by Mandela's current emphasis upon reconciliation. In the highlighting of "reconciliation" - however legitimate that goal may be in its own right - there also lies a risk that history will be sanitized and merely retold in euphemistic terms. For example, many people are disappointed that June 16th - the anniversary of the 1976 uprising by black schoolchildren - has been declared "Youth Day." This name erases the history of Soweto and stresses commonality over conflict. It will be interesting to see how people commemorate June 16th, for even if it is officially called Youth Day, alternative commemorations focused on Soweto will surely take place and make a point about the politics of history.

In the spirit of inclusiveness and reconciliation, the transitional government recognizes two national anthems, eleven official languages, and a flag that incorporates past colonial colours with those of the ANC. Mandela has also promised that white monuments will not be dismantled without careful discussion and negotiation. However, people have acted. In Bloemfontein, for instance, Africans pulled down a twenty foot statue of Hendrick Verwoerd, South Africa's prime minister from 1958 to 1966, who is generally regarded as the architect of apartheid.

The political challenge of presenting critical evaluations of the past in mainstream public institutions is not unique to South Africa, of course. In Washington, for example, the Smithsonian Museum recently became enmeshed in controversy when it attempted to present a critical exhibit of the Enola Gay and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The proposed exhibit was vigorously protested by veterans' groups, and eventually the Smithsonian yielded to them by eliminating the exhibit's most challenging questions and haunting images. Fortunately, and in contrast with the Smithsonian, a powerful exhibit on the destruction of Hiroshima was mounted in the student center of the American Museum. This is an example of how smaller community or university museums are often more successful than establishment ones (which are often big tourist sites) at producing provocative and politicized exhibits.

The community speaks

Similarly, in South Africa, community museums - such as the Worker's Museum in Johannesburg that Callinicos has helped to establish, and the District Six Museum in Cape Town - are on the cutting edge, creating exhibits that include the artifacts and voices of people who have been erased from official history and marginalized from public culture. These projects are remarkable for having responded to the needs of long ignored communities. Moreover, in contrast with traditional museum practices, these museums have been developed with community consultation and participation. The Workers' Museum, for example, has begun an oral history project conducted by the worker members themselves, to garner, in the mother tongue, the memories and life stories of older migrants who spent the bulk of their working lives in mining and municipal hostels. Callinicos stated that such commitment to involving communities in museum collecting and education is also a cornerstone of the recommendations made by the Arts and Culture Task Group. She stressed how current heritage policies are being articulated in relation to the government's Reconstruction and Development Program, reinforcing its emphasis upon developing a participatory democracy.

Cape Town's new District Six Museum, which is located in the Buitenkant Methodist Church, uses street signs and official registers to evoke the texture of everyday life in this culturally diverse community before the periods of forced removals. In 1901 Africans were relocated to Ndabeni, and in 1966 District Six was declared a white area under the Groups Areas Act. District Six was renamed Zonnebloem and the state demolished homes and "resettled" some 60,000 people in the Cape Flats.

Visitors to the District Six museum are invited to add their memories of places in the community to a large map of the district. A pamphlet for the museum explains how this memory project is related to both the past and future: "In this exhibition we do not wish to recreate District Six so much as to re-possess the history of the area as a place where people lived, loved and struggled. It is an attempt to take back our right to signpost our lives with those things we hold dear. At one level the exhibition is about signs of the past. We would like to invite you to write your names and addresses and make comments in the spaces around the exhibits or in our visitor's book. This is important in helping us to retrace our past. At another level the exhibition is also about pointers to our future." Clearly, this sort of memory project has the potential to be useful in tackling land reform and reclamation issues.


The new Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is also evidence of how important memory and knowledge is in relation to redressing past injustice (see, on this subject, Colin Leys' article "Amnesty not Amnesia: Dealing with the Past in South Africa," in SAR, vol. 10 no. 4, May 1995). But, as is clear from the title of the commission itself, it too is constrained by the government's chosen priority of forgiveness for (among other reasons, perhaps) the sake of economic stability.

Another challenge for heritage work involves the tension that arises from seeking to deal with symbolic concerns during a period when the majority of the population have urgent material needs. Callinicos noted, for example, that when the Worker's Museum and Library was established in a electricity worker's hostel in Johannesburg, some people felt that the land should have been used for affordable housing. One way of justifying the project was to point to the potential economic benefits that could develop as the museum becomes a tourist site. In this context, the question of heritage is not unrelated to economic development. Still, tensions do continue to arise in the sphere of democratizing heritage in post-apartheid South Africa precisely because of current material conditions. To take one recent instance, in response to the general enthusiasm about changing place names Lebona Mosia, development director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, stated: "People can't eat a name."

The uses of memory

Heritage sites such as the Worker's Museum may prove to be especially useful for helping people to understand the complexity of relational histories and segregation in South Africa. For example, the physical space of the worker's hostel, which is located immediately nest to the artisans' cottages exclusively set aside for white workers, reveals both the commonalities and unequal power relations that existed between Africans and Afrikaner workers: thus - a testament to the migrant labour system - the homes of white workers even included backyard shacks for domestic servants! By witnessing this reality, communities that have long been isolated by segregation can begin to take stock of their overlapping histories.

A key concern for cultural workers, however, is how to challenge responses of amnesia and nostalgia with regard to apartheid. Without a doubt, there are whites in South Africa collecting apartheid memorabilia in order to create right-wing nostalgia dens. Others may support efforts to commemorate apartheid out of a problematic cathartic desire to neatly dispose of the past. This sort of response to the past is also evident in memory politics surrounding the Holocaust in Germany and other countries. The problem with such responses in post-apartheid South Africa, is that whites may understand apartheid as being "over," and not engage with the issue of redressing inequalities.

* * *

Memory has always been an important aspect of anti-apartheid activism. And clearly, whatever the challenges inherent in doing so, the past will continue to be invoked to inform South Africa's future. At Robben Island, Nelson Mandela himself recently unveiled a plaque that reads: "Embedded in these stones you will find the pain of our struggle, the sorrow of losses, and foundation of our victory." Triumphalist representations of the past are also being questioned as people recall, for example, that the present-day town of Triomf was cruelly so named by white politicians after their destruction of the community that proceeded it on the same ground: Sophiatown, a site of defiant resistance to segregation. As Callinicos suggested, such examples may remind us that, in the new South Africa, the role of heritage in the debate over reconciliation versus reappropriation is only just beginning. It reflects a wider struggle over the contradictions of redress and empowerment on the one hand, and detente with the former enemy on the other, in the perilous and often ironic task of nation-building.

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