Reordering the Past: Monuments and Architectural Heritage in Post-Apartheid South Africa
This paper considers how the current drive to expand and reassess the symbolic landscape of memory contributes to the construction of a new national identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Every new political order forms a group identity through a process of selective remembering and invention of usable pasts. The most significant aspect of this process is the forging of a compelling foundation myth, which traces the roots and defines the beginning of the new order. This paper argues that the key myth of origin of the post-apartheid state and the basis of present-day South African national identity is the “Struggle” for liberation, which includes resistance against all forms of colonial oppression. This underlying grand narrative forms the basis for the identification of new heritage sites, the selection of buildings to be protected, and the selection of events and persons commemorated through the construction of new museums, memorials, monuments, and public statuary.
Table des matières
In any society, it is a shared heritage (language, traditions, leaders, a mutual experience of the past) that imparts a sense of group identity. Every new political order forms a group identity through a process of selective remembering and invention of usable pasts. The most significant aspect of this process is the forging of a compelling foundation myth, which traces the roots and defines the beginning of the new nation. It provides the framework into which events, artifacts, and sites can be embedded and from which they derive meaning. By drawing on current discourses around heritage and memory, notably with respect to their role in identity formation, this paper focuses on monuments as tools for forging a new national identity in post-apartheid South Africa.
In any society, certain memories are valued, because they are linked to that society’s present sense of identity or a new identity it intends to foster. Through institutionalized remembrance we want to ensure that selected individual or collective memories are incorporated into cultural memory. This can and often does include painful or traumatic memories. Jan Assmann1 points out that, contrary to much talk about memory loss, some forms of memory are not at all fading, but indeed being nurtured and intensified with the passage of time. For instance, the memory of the Holocaust has tremendously gained in significance in recent years. There is an increased awareness that the living memory [Erfahrungsgedächtnis] of those who witnessed the events must not get lost, but transferred into cultural memory and passed on to future generations. As will be shown below, in South Africa, it is primarily the memories of apartheid, colonial oppression, and resistance that are preserved for transferal into cultural memory; they form the basis of understanding “who we are and where we are coming from.”
Myth is depoliticized speech. . . . Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. . . . [I]t abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences . . . it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth. . . . [I]t establishes a blissful clarity.8
It is this blissful clarity—as opposed to the confusing opacity of gradations and ambiguities, which tends to characterize historical reality—that attracts people to myth. Monuments and other “products” of the heritage sector are means of visualizing these myths. Much has been written about how images of the past commonly serve to legitimate a present social order.9 Monuments, memorials, and heritage sites are means of literally casting in bronze or stone such images of the past, thus solidifying and preserving carefully selected memories for the future. Since the experience of the present is intricately connected with the memory of the past, public monuments serve to control and guide people’s perception of the contemporary sociopolitical order. National monuments, or those initiated by the state in particular, contribute to forging a new national identity by representing key themes of a country’s myth of origin.
In the current post-Apartheid era, the challenge lies in creating a convincing new foundation myth and commemorating an inclusive past that can be shared by all or most South Africans as the basis for a new nation. At a recent conference on “foundation myths of the new South Africa”10 scholars emanating from a range of disciplinary perspectives presented different views about the salience of various myths and compared the South African situation with that of other countries. For instance, some highlighted the “Rainbow Nation” as a foundation myth—a term first introduced into the South African context by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the 1980s, describing his vision for a new state. Usage of the term is however not unique to South Africa (e.g., Reverend Jesse Jackson introduced it in the United States in 198411) and it was pointed out by Catherine Boudet that the “Rainbow Nation” served as a foundation myth for Mauritius in the 1960s.12
The value of a heritage site is not intrinsic; it becomes valuable by definition, through selection, through an act of designation, or proclamation. It is through the act of proclamation —by those official structures empowered to perform it—that a heritage site acquires its status and significance. On a national level, the official structure empowered to determine what counts as heritage in South Africa today, is the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), which replaces the National Monuments Council (NMC) of the previous era. It is through policy and legislation, that the foundation myth is translated into practice and tangible reality.
The new Heritage Resources act furthermore provides for the future assessment and possible re-evaluation of all monuments, which will subsequently be classified in a three-tier grading system based on their perceived significance (i.e., national, provincial, or local relevance). The future of these buildings, statues and memorials—i.e., their further development, maintenance, financial support, possible relocation, etc.—will depend on that assessment and classification. The criteria for significance, especially for sites of national interest, will likely be closely tied up with the post-apartheid nation’s new value systems and foundation myth. A new symbolic identity is thus being constructed not only through the development of new heritage sites, but also through the reconsideration of existing ones, which may be upgraded, downgraded, relocated, or reinterpreted.
In a democratic society, where freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, all narratives—including those essential to the foundation myth of the state—are open to public scrutiny and potential contestation. While academics and politicians may negotiate the disputed content of such narratives, monuments are there to represent the story—as chosen for remembrance by the now dominant political forces—to the people. Monuments are public, lasting, visual expressions of narratives; they interpret history for the people.
Notes de fin numériques:
1 J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, C.H Beck, München, 2000, p 15.
2 M. Lambek and P. Antze, “Introduction: Forecasting Memory”, in M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, Routledge, New York and London, 1996, p. xvii.
3 M. Lambek and P. Antze, “Introduction: Forecasting Memory,” in M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, p. xvii.
4 E. Marienstras, “Mythes fondateurs de la nation américaine et de la nation française.” Unpublished paper presented at a conference organized by the Groupe Rechèrche de l’Afrique du Sud (GRAS) on foundation myths of the new South Africa, March 2003, University of Réunion.
5 “It may contain elements that are unhistorical, or ahistorical, but it adds up to a cultural truth. It may indeed contain a great deal of historically accurate and factually testable material, but this is transformed into a touchstone of national, local and even individual identity.” B. Graham, G. J. Ashworth, and J. E. Tunbridge, A Geography of Heritage, Arnold, London, 2000, p 18.
6 J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, p. 75.
7 J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, p. 76.
8 R. Barthes. “Myth today,” in J. Evans and S. Hall, eds., Visual Culture: The Reader, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1999, p. 58.
9 See P. Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
10 A conference on foundation myths of the new South Africa was held at the University de la Réunion, Reunion Island in March 2003, organized by the Groupe Rechèrche de l’Afrique du Sud (GRAS).
11 Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of the United States’ foremost civil rights, religious, and political figures, founded the National Rainbow Coalition in 1984. This national social justice organization, based in Washington is devoted to political empowerment, education and changing public policy. Jackson is known for his promotion of inclusiveness across lines of race, culture, class, gender and belief. See www.rainbowpush.org/founder/
12 C. Boudet, 2003. “L’arc-en-ciel comme mythe fondateur de la nation mauricienne.” Unpublished paper presented at conference organized by the Groupe Rechèrche de l’Afrique du Sud (GRAS) on foundation myths of the new South Africa, March 2003, University of Réunion (see note 17).
13 As M. Lambek and P. Antze, “Introduction. Forecasting Memory”, in M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, p. xxi, have observed with respect to North America, issues of memory are so prevalent today, because memory is deeply implicated in concepts of personhood and accountability. Memory is part of the current fascination in North America (and elsewhere, one might add) with the allocation of responsibility and the politics of blame.
14 Information brochure: New South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), With new Legislation and new Direction, SAHRA, Cape Town, undated.
15 A. Huyssen, “Monument and Memory in a Postmodern Age”, in J. E. Young, ed., The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, p. 9.
16 N. Madlala-Routledge, “Honour demands that veterans of the liberation struggle get their own monuments,” Sunday Times, December 16, 2001.
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Sabine Marschall. «Reordering the Past: Monuments and Architectural Heritage in Post-Apartheid South Africa». principal, Limites disciplinairesRepenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines
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Sabine Marschall received her PhD in art history from the University of Tübingen in Germany in 1992. She is currently associate professor and coordinator of the Cultural and Heritage Tourism Program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. Her research revolves around commemoration and heritage in post-apartheid South Africa.