Shades of conflict memorialisation and their artefacts: Personal Reflections

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Shades of conflict memorialisation and their artefacts: Personal Reflections

By Noel Solani

The majority of South African holidays are based on historical events that were experienced by some members of this society as a result of actions by other members of the same society. A simple summer day in South Africa like the 16th of December evokes different memories depending on which side of the railway line, river or main road you were born on and the history you associate with. For example, in apartheid South Africa, this was celebrated as the day of the vow in commemoration of the Battle of the Blood River by the Voortrekkers against amaZulu nationality. Artefacts that would be used and the images that would be portrayed would be a direct reflection of the military power that each group had. In most cases, in documentary films and other forms of representations, the Africans are represented as savages which are bloodthirsty and yet they had modest weapons to defend themselves, their women, children and land against armies that carried advanced weapons that could inflict instead pain and massacre large numbers of men and women from a distance. These were fights of assegai versus guns, a war that would ultimately be lost by the Africans against well trained and heavily armed armies.  

I was reminded of the different ways of commemorating 16 December last year (2021) when because of the temperatures, we decided to take an easy hike and went to the Voortrekker Monument. Usually, we observe the high volumes of cars in the parking when we come back from the hike, the Museum at the time would be open. This time around, we arrived at the usual hiking time, which we thought was a decent time to start a friendly hike. To our surprise, the parking was already full. By the time we noticed and remembered it was too late for us, we were already inside the premises. We were fortunate that the ticket office understood our dilemma and gave us a pass to immediately exit the premises. On returning home and switching between the television stations, other forms of commemoration were taking place. The state was celebrating the day of reconciliation. However, as usual, such events are a gig for Africans with very few people from other nationalities. On social media, one began to notice that some sections of the population were making comments to the effect that they rather celebrate this day as Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) day since it launched its first sabotage campaign on 16 December 1961. 

It occurred to me that while the state seeks to forge national unity on a day like 16 December, such unity refuses to be born. Indicative of this is that the section of the White Afrikaner community that gathers at Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and Bloed Rivier Monument in Dundee each year, are not there to celebrate the day of reconciliation, they are there to commemorate the Day of the Vow. They fill the space with their families to celebrate their survival and to fulfil the promise that was made by their ancestors to God in an undivided way. Both occasions use different artefacts to commemorate the 16 December of 1883 or 1961, again depending on which side of the fence you associate with. 

At the time of experiencing this, I thought perhaps I should stick around, attend some of the talks, listen, learn and observe what is happening and how this section of the Afrikaner community commemorates this day, however, my family refused to leave me behind. On the account of that, I made a decision that I will look at how the 21 March is celebrated by the different communities. I again consciously this time around and visited the Voortrekker Monument, the space was quiet except for the usual hikers. I thought I would then wait for the occasion of 16 June, which is six months later than the 16 December holiday. Unfortunately, due to some other factors, I could not visit. This brings me to the point I wanted to make and use 16 June as an example.

However, let me first digress. I followed the 16 June 2022 mostly on social media and searched different platforms. Each year, I am amazed by the new artefacts that become popular and are widely circulated on social media. In the past few years, these artefacts first took the shape of adults wearing uniforms of their children as a form of commemorating 16 June 1976. These parents would have been the generation of young people of the 1980s that were active in the fight against Bantu/Gutter Education and other forms of discrimination. To them the most important symbol of representing 16 June 1976 was the uniform. The other piece of the artefact was the photograph of Hector Petersen which was taken by Sam Nzima. In this image, Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo with Hector’s sister, Antoinette running next to Mbuyisa. This image came to represent the 16 June 1976 in popular memory of the day.

In the past few years, some began to make a mockery of the death of so many young people in the hands of a well-trained South African Police Force which had all the modern weaponry against learners with only their books and stones. However, this year, it seems that some seriousness has returned to the commemoration of 16 June 1976 with new images emerging of what happened and the debates that took place on what happened that day. The first video is that of Tsietise Mashini contesting the speech that was made by Jimmy Kruger in parliament that 128 students were killed in the Soweto revolts. In his rebuttal, Mashinini, states that the bodies that were in the state mortuary have numbers on the forehead of each corpse.  The first time they visited the mortuary, the numbers were in their first hundred. However, on subsequent visits, the numbers on the packed bodies were in their 300s. Irrespective of the numbers, which in themselves are artefacts of memory, there is general agreement by both sides that many children were murdered by a well-trained police force. This then makes an interesting observation when right-wing lawyers, in challenging the heritage of the liberation struggle, want to invoke international law and talk about child soldiers when the police killed defenceless children in public view and in the presence of both local and international press since the 1970s right up to the early 1990s. 

The question then becomes, where is the memory of those that were disfranchised and defeated in the conflict over the contestation of land between the natives and the colonialist/settlers commemorated from their perspective? We know where the Voortrekkers, the Anglo-Boer War, and First and Second World Wars are commemorated and their artefacts unapologetically preserved. We also know that the democratic state, which came into power based on unity, reconciliation and nation-building continued to fully support these institutions with the understanding that the artefacts in their possession are the heritage of all the people of South Africa. This truism is stated without even posing the question, do all the people of South Africa feel an affinity with these artefacts that continue to be supported with substantial sums of money from the fiscus? 

The above does not mean that the new state has not built new institutions. Contrary, it has built several institutions. However, besides one or two of those institutions, when one looks at the budget of the newly built institutions, it is not even a fraction of the old institutions which the state says they must transform. Another debate which is not the subject of my reflections here, is “what does transformation mean in a museum”? Does it mean the addition of new artefacts to the already existing artefacts to reflect the diversity of the population? Or does it mean that new exhibitions need to be constructed that would reflect this diversity and new ethos? Or perhaps, does it mean changing white faces with black faces with the old storylines being told in the old fashion? Or does it mean the reconfiguration and categorisation of collections? So many questions, and in answering any of those questions, serious financial resources are required. Otherwise, we might as well accept that the transformation of museums will take several generations to be achieved. 

These reflections are made understanding that museums are not the only space concerned with the preservation of heritage, communities from which this heritage emerges in the first space have their ways of preserving it which might not be conventional to museum professionals. Diverse institutions, social organisations, forums and even political parties have a vested interest in the preservation of heritage. These diverse interests directly impact public museums. This impact will probably be serious first by the next generation when it has to take care of this significant heritage without matching resources at their disposal. First, we have to accept that, curators in museums are committed to taking good care of their collections. For this, the state has to be proud that it has a dedicated cohort of people dedicated to the preservation of what they call “heritage object”. Secondly, we also have to accept that, generally, without the exception of a few curators in our institutions, we have a group that has disengaged with policy-making, if it was ever engaged. The testimony to this is their late contestation and protestation of policy positions taken by the government. There may at times be timid protestation with no impact at the time of policy implementation and even there when they are confronting the difficulties of compliance. 

In the arts and cultural space, which includes heritage (a space where museums find themselves) the revised White Paper on Arts Culture and Heritage has been in the making probably for the past 10 years with no one knowing when it will be concluded. Even the Draft White Revised White Paper, long as it has been in gestation, there is little debate from the museum sector on how it affects the sector as a whole. It is not informed by its own realities on the ground. When the time comes, it will be approved and only then will individuals want to contest certain sections of the policy. There is another document that may or may not affect the heritage sector, depending on who wins the next elections, it is the draft policy document of the ANC on Arts Culture and Heritage which will inform debates in their upcoming policy conference and their National Conference. The sector is also disengaged and not interacting with it at this early stage. This is important because, for the first time since it assumes the levers of power through the government of National Unity, it is the first time that an ANC Conference will cease itself with the Arts Culture and Heritage. It indicates a shift of thinking and an interest in this sphere of operation which is supposed to champion nation-building, national reconciliation and safer communities through the arts. 

Coming from a divided society which is reflected by our geographies and artefacts in our institutions, we again should be thinking, given the right resources, how would we reconfigure our spaces to reflect our realities as a country, but also seek to bring people together irrespective of race, gender, class or creed. What artefacts could be used to achieve that objective, and do they exist? 

In this part of the reflections, I do not go deeper into these shades of memorialising conflict except to make broad claims that are not substantiated. I deliberately do that to allow others to challenge these claims and instigate debate.

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