History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africaby Annie E. Coombes
The democratic election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa in 1994 marked the demise of apartheid and the beginning of a new struggle to define the nation’s past. History after Apartheid analyzes how, in the midst of the momentous shift to an inclusive democracy, South Africa’s visual and material culture represented the past while at the same time contributing to the process of social transformation. Considering attempts to invent and recover historical icons and narratives, art historian Annie E. Coombes examines how strategies for embodying different models of historical knowledge and experience are negotiated in public culture—in monuments, museums, and contemporary fine art.
History after Apartheid explores the dilemmas posed by a wide range of visual and material culture including key South African heritage sites. How prominent should Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress be in the museum at the infamous political prison on Robben Island? How should the postapartheid government deal with the Voortrekker Monument mythologizing the Boer Trek of 1838? Coombes highlights the contradictory investment in these sites among competing constituencies and the tensions involved in the rush to produce new histories for the “new” South Africa.
She reveals how artists and museum officials struggled to adequately represent painful and difficult histories ignored or disavowed under apartheid, including slavery, homelessness, and the attempted destruction of KhoiSan hunter-gatherers. Describing how contemporary South African artists address historical memory and the ambiguities uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Coombes illuminates a body of work dedicated to the struggle to simultaneously remember the past and move forward into the future.
“With verve, imagination, and engagement, Annie E. Coombes gives us an incisive account of memorial culture in South Africa since apartheid. She foregrounds the political tensions and ambiguities of rehabilitating traditional monuments, making Robben Island into an icon of resistance and liberation, creating museums of urban and township living that hover between reflective nostalgia and traumatized remembrance. Revisionism is a political necessity, but how is one to remember a brutal and painful history without rekindling the divisive passions of the past? A must read for anyone interested in memory culture on a global scale.”—Andreas Huyssen, author of Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory
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History after apartheidVisual culture and public memory in a democratic South Africa
By Annie E. Coombes
Duke University Press
Chapter OneTRANSLATING THE PAST
Apartheid Monuments in Postapartheid South Africa
All Afrikaner monuments [should] be removed from the mainland and placed in the cells in the prison on Robben Island. It could then be called "Boerassic Park."-Evita Bezuidenhout, Ambassador to Bapetikosweti (otherwise known as the satirist Pieter Dirk Uys)
In July 1992 the South African History Workshop in Johannesburg hosted a conference, "Myths, Monuments, Museums." The poster for the event depicted a crowd fighting over one of the national monuments most closely identified with the apartheid regime-the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria (figure 3). The effectiveness of the image derives partly from its ambiguity. From one perspective the crowd is shoring up the monument, but from another it is clearly intent on pulling it down. The thorny question of the fate of monuments erected to commemorate regimes that have since been discredited and disgraced is not solely a South African dilemma, of course. In the recent past the future of most of the public statuary in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the infamous Berlin Wall, has been the subject of intense debate. In a moving documentary, Disgraced Monuments (1994), which manages to evoke nostalgia without sentimentality, directorsLaura Mulvey and Mark Lewis explore the fate of public monuments under successive regimes in the former Soviet Union, and the apparently endless cycle of monumental sculptural programs celebrating the favored leader of the moment, followed inevitably by their iconoclastic dismantling and removal. Just such a sequence was most famously captured by the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein when he filmed the toppling of the statue of the czar in Oktobr (1927). As the art historian Natalya Davidova comments in Disgraced Monuments, in Russia it has always been a case of "a struggle with the past that was realized through a struggle with monuments." Indeed the film charts instances from Lenin's famous decree on public monuments in 1918 and the iconoclasm that followed to the more recent waves of iconoclastic fervor in the 1990s after the fall of communism. In the opening scenes of the film the camera pans the shelves of a Russian factory where busts of former Soviet leaders sit mute, bundled up in brown paper packaging and tied with string, awaiting a delivery call that will probably never come. In a park in Moscow enclosed by low railings huge sculptures of Lenin, Feliks Dzerzhinsky (former head of the secret police), and Stalin lie toppled on their sides, one elbow supported by a broken column-an apt allegorical support for a fallen leader. This is the Temporary Museum of Totalitarian Art, Russia's solution to the now embarrassing memory of demoted Soviet heroes. In Budapest a similar park exists serving essentially as a cemetery for the defunct leaders of previous Communist regimes. A skeptical observer in Disgraced Monuments remarks that since the onset of perestroika in August 1991 the only real changes visible in Russia are a spate of new subjects for yet another wave of monuments. After all, he says pessimistically, "Concrete is easier to change than reality."
It is not surprising that similar scrutiny has been leveled at much of the public sculpture set up over the long apartheid years to commemorate key moments and figures in the Afrikaner nationalist canon and that these debates took place in the highly public forums of the national press and television, especially between 1993 and 1996. Indeed, comparisons with both the former Soviet Union and other East and Central European countries were a feature of some of these debates. The humor of the moment was not lost on the acerbic South African cartoonist Zapiro, who preferred to corral the "displaced" statues and portraits of apartheid's political leaders into a wild game reserve and theme park for the benefit of tourists (figure 4). As the monument debate raged, reputations were made and lost over the issue. The Voortrekker Monument provides a useful point of entry into the complexities of the debates around appropriate forms for commemorating the past and envisaging the future in the "new" South Africa. Some recommended keeping the monument as a reminder of the oppression of the apartheid era-to learn from the lessons of the past. Although some critics favored abandoning the monument altogether and demolishing the site, the South African solution has been notably unlike the East European counterparts. The ANC spokespeople involved in outlining cultural policy for the new democratic government were adamant that most of the Afrikaner monuments should remain, including the Voortrekker Monument.
Consequently, although in practice some monuments dedicated to the memory and legacy of apartheid have been destroyed (certainly the fate of most statues of Hendrick Verwoerd, the man considered by many to be the major architect of apartheid), many of those most symbolically laden are still intact, including the Voortrekker and the Taalmonument (Afrikaans Language Monument) outside Paarl. Indeed, at various points in the debate over the future of monuments in South Africa there was criticism about the amount of government funding being apportioned to monuments dedicated to aspects of Afrikaner culture. In 1996, for example, R 1.2 million was spent on the Voortrekker Monument Museum and a further R 801,000 on the Afrikaanse Taalmuseum, as opposed to R 200,000 given to what many would regard as a key site for the commemoration of the liberation struggle-the District Six Museum. According to one report, by 1999 the Voortrekker Monument was getting R 425,000 and the grant for the Afrikaanse Taalmuseum had risen from R 886,000 to R 955,000, while the grant to Robben Island had dropped from R 24.2 million to R 21.9 million.
One notorious proposal was to erect a monument of Mandela's arm rising up on one of the hills opposite the Voortrekker Monument as a kind of symbolic riposte. This was one of the earliest new commissions mooted for public sculpture for the new dispensation, and the debate that ensued was to set the tone for much of the later discussions. Estimated at a cost of R 60 million in some reports, the project was highly controversial from the outset. In the first place, the chosen artist, Danie de Jager, had no reputation as a "struggle" artist. Indeed with similar hubris to Leni Riefenstahl's adamant objection to being linked in any way to the ideologies of National Socialism under the Third Reich, de Jager denied any association with the apartheid regime, despite being the artist responsible for a number of the regime's key public sculpture commissions, including the monstrous head of J. G. Strijdom in Pretoria and the statue of Hendrick Verwoerd that marks his grave. Both politicians were, in fact, responsible for the intensification of apartheid policies. De Jager saw himself as the artist best qualified for the new project precisely because, as he insisted to the Sunday Independent, he was "the most experienced sculptor in [the] country of heroic or larger-than-life work." This is a dubious accolade at the best of times since works of such scale are historically almost always associated with totalitarian regimes of one complexion or another.
To add insult to injury, the project was funded by de Jager and two businessmen, Abe and Solly Krok, whose business success was in no small measure due to their effective marketing of "skin-lightening" creams to various black constituencies. In addition, the project was apparently supported by the president's office, and the Afrikaans language daily, Rapport, carried photographs of Mandela in the company of Solly Krok and de Jager looking at the alarming maquette of a twenty-three-meter-high bronze forearm (apparently modeled on Mandela's) rising up out of the roof of a temple structure, looking for all the world like one of the early sets of a Hammer horror movie (figure 5). The combination of politically tainted funders and artist, together with the perceived affinity with fascist and other totalitarian monuments, was too much for many cultural commentators and elicited a spate of antagonistic criticisms in the national press on all three counts and, it would be fair to say, across a spectrum of liberal to fairly conservative opinion (see one example in figure 6). Many critics were particularly dismayed at the lack of transparency in the process of assessing the project and were angered by de Jager's obvious ease of access to the president when many other causes seen as more deserving struggled for months to get a hearing. They claimed that the commission had been undemocratically handled and lacked consultative mechanisms. It was also of course an opportunity for some apologists to take the side of the artist and argue (one can only say defensively) the importance of allowing individuals to be capable of change. The incident also generated debate about what kind of form was appropriate for a monument to the liberation struggle, as well as obviously highlighting what one critic referred to as the "blurred borders between the state and the private sector."
This chapter is an exploration of the possibilities and impossibilities for rehabilitating a monument with an explicit history as a foundational icon of the apartheid state. In particular, I am curious to know how far it is possible to disinvest such an icon of its Afrikaner nationalist associations and reinscribe it with new resonances that enable it to remain a highly public monument despite a new democratic government whose future is premised on the demise of everything the monument has always stood for. How is it possible for black constituencies to simply accept the coexistence of such an oppressive reminder of apartheid? Conversely, in the face of evident factionalism within the Afrikaner nationalist contingency since at least the early 1980s, how do the monument's fascist overtones square with the requirements of what some have argued is an emerging Afrikaner middle class with cosmopolitan and international pretensions.
I want to argue that in the 1990s the Voortrekker Monument did not simply become a shadow of its former self (as one might anticipate) and that it was not disinterest alone (even were this figured as strategic disavowal) that made it possible for the ANC and others to allow this oppressive reminder of the recent past to remain in place. Rather I want to suggest that the monument accrued significance supplemental to, and in some cases of course directly at odds with, its intended symbolic presence. I see this as not simply a symptom of the passing of time and the necessary sedimenting of meanings that accumulate as part of the process of historical change. My concern here is to reinstate the concept of agency as a way of understanding how this commemorative "shrine" has been reinvented post-apartheid. Sometimes serendipitous, sometimes strategic, and sometimes opportunistic, the monument seems to have become a staging post for self-fashioning for both white and black constituencies across the political spectrum. From Afrikaner laager to Zulu kraal-these two images span the symbolic currency of the monument today and help to resite it. The semantic distance between them foregrounds the extent to which even an apparently stable signifier of monolithic nationalist associations can be undercut by the necessarily hybridizing effects of different acts of translation.
The concept of translation is helpful here, both in the Benjaminian sense of supplemental meanings that necessarily transform the "original" through the act of translation and in the sense that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests of an active "reader as translator" capable of performing a reading against the grain and between the lines even in circumstances where the raw material reproduces a set of fairly standard colonial tropes. While translation is more usually associated with the word and text, on a simple level, it is perhaps appropriate in the case of a monument such as the Voortrekker, where the iconographic register is particularly susceptible to this kind of linguistic model and the narrative of the interior frieze invites a performative reading. On a more complex level translation offers a way of articulating the operations of agency in the construction of historical memory.
My argument turns on the fact that the Voortrekker Monument has a significance for all South Africans. Any acts of translation depend on a certain familiarity with the text, a getting inside the skin of the writer. To the extent that the narrative of the Great Trek was the imposed foundational narrative of the nation-state-the only legitimate history available at any level of education-and to the extent that Afrikaans was the imposed language at all levels of public (and often private) intercourse, the Voortrekker Monument attained a certain monstrous legibility-inescapable even to those who never visited the site. Most important, the monument had a historical status as the centerpiece of an orchestrated mass spectacle of Afrikaner unity and power-a legacy that has by no means receded and that provided a rallying point for various factions on the right up to and beyond the eve of the democratic elections in April 1994.
On 16 December 1938, the foundation stone of this central monument to apartheid was laid on a hill outside Pretoria. It was also the occasion of an elaborate reconstruction of the foundational event of Afrikaner nationalism -the Great Trek of 1838. That year a party of Boer men, women, and children (known as the Voortrekker, or "pioneers"), dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape and its inconvenient corollary of slave emancipation, set off in a convoy of ox wagons on a grueling journey from Cape Town to form independent republics in what were to become the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. One hundred years later, twelve replica ox wagons, complete with costumed Voortrekker families, set out from various parts of the country to restage that fateful journey and finally arrived (nearly four months later) at two of the most historically significant destinations-the city of Pretoria and the site of the battle of Blood River (the Ncome River). The Voortrekker Youth Movement completed the staging of the event by forming a "river of fire," with flaming torches lit in relay fashion by hundreds of young Voortrekker scouts around the country, starting in Cape Town and culminating in a torch-lit procession up the sides of Monument Hill-"symbolic of the spread of civilization from the Cape to the far north." The mass spectacle, which greeted the 1930s Trekkers and which was orchestrated around the base of what would become the Voortrekker Monument, was a calculated attempt to invent a coherent Afrikaner identity where none actually existed, borrowing the language of theater so successfully deployed by the National Socialists in Germany and epitomized by the Nazi rallies at the Nuremburg stadium.
By the date of the inauguration of the monument on 16 December 1949, it was clear that the theatrical orchestration of national unity (evident in figures 7 and 8) was not the only thing the South African leaders had borrowed from the Nazis. In his inaugural address, Daniel Francis Malan, prime minister of the Union of South Africa, described the nineteenth-century Boer Trekkers: "Exclusively, and bound by their own blood ties, they had to be children of South Africa. Further, there was the realisation that as bearers and propagators of Christian civilisation, they had a national calling which had set them and their descendants the inexorable demand on the one hand to act as guardians over the non-European races, but on the other hand to see to the maintenance of their own white paramountcy and of their white race purity." Furthermore, this was not simply a historical condition relegated to the past but an ongoing ideal since Afrikaners were metaphorically still on the Trek road in 1949. Malan continued: "On the Trek road! Whither? Look ahead and judge for yourselves.... That which confronts you threateningly is nothing less than modern and outwardly civilised heathendom as well as absorption into semi-barbarism through miscegenation and the disintegration of the white race." That same year the National Party passed the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.
Excerpted from History after apartheid by Annie E. Coombes Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Annie E. Coombes teaches art history and cultural studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, where she is Director of Graduate Studies in the School of History of Art, Film, and Visual Media. She is the author of Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England and coeditor of Hybridity and Its Discontents: Politics, Science, Culture.
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