Publication Date

February 1, 1996

Constructions of the past are powerful weapons in South Africa. The apartheid state and its allies used a history that was peculiarly distorted to fit their goals, a history in which whites brought civilization and prosperity to a land that was theirs by God-given right, with blacks represented only as troublesome "native tribes" who caused mayhem when not kept under firm control. The African National Congress (ANC), in tum, has drawn upon its tradition of multiracialism to present a history of individual and collective struggle against racial supremacy and intolerance. Some ANC supporters from the labor movement offer a particular version of this struggle, that of workers against a vicious and racist South African form of capitalism. The ANC's version of the South African past emphasizes the 20th-century, predominantly urban, liberation struggle. Unlike the ANC, Mangosutho Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party presents itself as the guardian of the "Zulu nation" founded by the warrior king Shaka in the 1820s. And from the African nationalist perspective of the Pan African Congress (PAC), all indigenous South Africans have consistently united to defend the values of their rural and communalist society against the destructive onslaught of settler invasion.

With such differing constructions of the past it is perhaps not surprising that the present "Government of National Unity" has adopted a policy of compromise and inc1usiven~ss in its public symbolism. The new flag blends the red, white, and blue of the Voortrekker republics with the green, black, and gold of African nationalism. There are two national anthems—the old "Die Stem," which celebrates the past of trekboer ox wagons creaking into the wild interior, and "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika," the hymn of the resistance organizations. National holidays include December 16, the holy day of Afrikaner nationalism since 1836, when the Boers defeated the Zulu and vowed to commemorate forevermore what they believed was a sign of God's favor. The holiday has now been renamed, significantly, the Day of Reconciliation. The key dates of the liberation calendar, March 21 and June 16, commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto uprising of 1976. The two dates, which were observed unofficially throughout the 1980s, have now been adopted as Human Rights Day and Youth Day in a clear move to broaden their appeal beyond that of black resistance supporters. This has angered many, who believe that the turning points of anti-apartheid history are being diluted in the public memory. The PAC, whose anti-apartheid campaign in 1960 led to the Sharpeville shootings, tellingly complained that "asking us to replace Sharpeville Day and June 16, 1976, will be asking the African masses forget their history."1

Up to now, the desire to conciliate has also prevented decisive change in the way in which history is taught and presented to South Africa's citizens. The old apartheid history syllabus used in secondary schools has only been tinkered with, not scrapped. There has been little shift in the personnel and ethos of the civil service, including those who administer the national monuments and museums. So although foreign tourism is now only second to mining as a generator of national income, the visitor sees little in South African historical sites to suggest a fundamental break from the constructions of the apartheid era.

The public monuments and historical museums of the old South Africa reflected a narrowly white view of the past that ignored the country's African heritage.2 A striking demonstration of this was the division into two in 1964, at the heyday of apartheid, of the national South African Museum in Cape Town. Part of the museum's contents were placed in a new Cultural History Museum, established to represent South Africa's past as an exclusively white experience, and included rooms filled with Greek, Roman, Dutch, and British objects. Meanwhile, displays of African artifacts were placed up the road in the Natural History Museum with the stuffed lions and whale skeletons. Most small-town museums in South Africa display relics of their white inhabitants and present versions of a settler history that depict Africans only as troublesome natives to be conquered. And the many monuments and statues in South Africa are all of white politicians, generals, and ideologues.

In the 1980s several historical theme parks were opened. These were much more popular and interactive than the bird-stained statues and the dusty glass cases of the traditional museum, but what they offered was still a myopic vision of the South African past. For instance, Gold Reef City, which opened in 1986 to celebrate Johannesburg's centenary, was constructed on the site of one of the city's earliest gold mines, which became a prime tourist venue. It promised its visitors a "trip back to Johannesburg a hundred years ago" through reconstructed streets, pubs, and the mine itself. And while numerous displays and re-enactments recalled the jostling early mining town and the experiences of its white occupants, there was not a single mention of African migrant laborers, the mainstay of the industry's workforce. As Cynthia Kros noted of Gold Reef City in an issue of the South African Journal, “This is a past without compounds or segregation.”3

Similarly, the revamped dockside Waterfront in Cape Town invited visitors to "step back in time" to a past that consisted of ships and sails but ignored the workforce of the docks, both black and white, at the place where South Africa's first and largest trade union was established.4 In the small Cape university town of Stellenbosch, a number of period houses were restored to form the Dorp Museum representing four centuries of the town's history, but not one servant or slave received a mention. The extravagantly "reconstructed" but utterly mythical Lost City was based upon an especially invidious fantasy. Built in the middle of the impoverished homeland area of Boputhatswana by hotel and casino magnate Sol Kerzner, Lost City presented the story of descendants of Solomon arriving from the north and building an exotic capital. This merged well with white perceptions that real archaeological sites, such as Great Zimbabwe, could not have been built by Africans but are relics of Phoenician or Mediterranean civilizations. The African past is thus conveniently negated.5

With political transition, a few modifications have been made. A statue of Mahatma Gandhi now stands outside the Pietermaritzburg railway station where he was ignominiously ejected from a train for traveling in the first-class section reserved for whites. The site where Hector Peterson, the first pupil to be shot in the Soweto uprising, died is now marked by a memorial. In Cape Town's Athlone township a plaque has been set up to honor schoolboys who were killed when police hidden in crates on the back of a railway truck opened fire on protesting students at the height of antiapartheid protests in 1985. But such memorials are few and far between. The main squares of South African cities are still dominated by statues of white founders. There has been no East European-style demolition of the heroes of the old order. In independent Zimbabwe statues of Cecil Rhodes were swiftly toppled. But in Cape Town his figure still stands in public gardens, arm imperiously pointing northward with the inscription "Your hinterland is yonder." Only the bust of Hendrick Verwoerd, chief architect of apartheid in the 1950s, has been removed from the foyer of the National Parliament.

Some changes have taken place at public history sites. The Cape Town Waterfront employed revisionist historians to erect a series of storyboards that depict the roles of both black and white workers." And the South African Museum mounted a major display on the experience of political prisoners detained on Robben Island. The display is to be permanently set up at the Waterfront at the place from which prisoners were transported to the island. The future of the prison itself, now deserted, is still to be decided, but it is likely that it will form part of a commemorative site marking the apartheid years and be open to tourists curious to see the place where Nelson Mandela spent so much of his life. Cape Town Castle, a symbol of settler rule and power since its foundation by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, was host to a festival commemorating the arrival in the 1690sofMuslim slaves and political exiles. In addition, the Castle recently mounted an exhibition entitled Setting Apart that uses documents, photographs, and oral testimonies to record the imposition of residential segregation on Cape Town. In the words of its publicity brochure, the exhibition challenges “the rush to erase the evidence and memory of the past.” Some changes are more token. The Stellenbosch Dorp Museum now displays a sign at its entrance reminding visitors of “the harmony that existed in the past between Brown and White” (a reference to the “mixed-race” slaves and servants). There is, however, still no sign of the “Brown” presence in the museum’s displays.

A few new museums have appeared. The radically revamped Africana Museum in Johannesburg, opened three months after the 1994 election, presents a revisionist version of the city's history. Displays show African farmers before the discovery of gold; a re-created mine shaft that reveals the atrocious working conditions of black workers; a squatter settlement; a township shebeen (illegal bar); and, finally, the 1994 election itself. One of the last remaining migrant worker compounds at Newtown has been converted into a community center with displays on the living conditions of early African mine workers. The former pass-office building in Durban, where between the 1950s and 1980s Africans had to queue to obtain permits to work in the “white man’s town,” has been converted into the Kwa Muhle Museum of Local History. The museum features exhibitions, educational tours, and community-based events focusing on the black Durban experience. A temporary exhibition about District Six, the Cape Town multiracial inner-city community that was bulldozed under apartheid laws, proved so popular when set up in a local church that it has now become permanent. A large map of the district covers the floor. Visitors who once lived there are encouraged to add to it from their memories.

But many such new exhibitions and museums are finding it hard to attract new audiences. As elsewhere in the world, museums and monuments are essentially elitist institutions. In South Africa this problem is all the more acute, given the disparities of wealth in the country. Positioned in the center of cities far away from the townships where the large majority of black South Africans still live, museums and monuments are both physically and financially inaccessible to many people.

In response to this problem, the new minister of culture has set up task groups to review the nature of national heritage provisions. The groups are still collecting evidence and conducting hearings, but some of the early draft recommendations are suggestive. They point out that more than 95 percent of the existing national monuments are colonial buildings and that the precolonial past is largely ignored. The National Monument Council has begun to appeal to local communities, predominantly black, to identify sites of particular significance to them. The recommendations also broaden the concept of heritage to include not only museums, monuments, and archives but also "oral history and living culture," stressing the need to "record popular culture and popular memory." At present, oral traditions and histories are collected in a number of university-based research projects but are not widely available to the broader public.

Of paramount significance to the Cultural Ministry's proposals are policies of affirmative action that will bring more black South Africans into employment in museums, archives, and libraries and lead to a redirection of resources away from the city centers to the townships and rural homelands. Precisely how this is to be achieved is still under discussion. It is clear that the government's fiscal priorities lie in the spheres of health, land, and education.

In such circumstances there is a danger that the most striking images of the South African past will be formed by private commercial enterprises of the kind represented by "Lost City." Some (mainly white) South Africans are concerned that where state intervention does take place, one uncontested version of a nationalist past will merely be replaced by another. It is unlikely, however, under the current Government of National Unity, with Mandela's strong emphasis on reconciliation between black and white, that any new version of the past will reflect the kind of strident Africanist nationalism demanded by the PAC. But maybe in the rush to reconcile, to forget past differences, and to manufacture a new "common South African heritage" there is also a danger-a danger that once again, as in the past, the history of many people will be obliterated in public memory. Just as the South African "Truth and Reconciliation" Commission seeks to encourage revelations of crimes from the era of apartheid in order to begin the process of national reconciliation, so our divided past needs to be more widely and sensitively understood for us to be able to come to terms with ourselves as South Africans. There is much to be done.


1. Amin Lutchka, "PAC Is Angry," Weekly Mail, 17-25 March 1995.

2. For an account of the structures by which public historical sites were managed under apartheid, see A Hall and C. Kros, "New Premises for Public History in South Africa," The Public Historian 16, no. 2 (1994); 15-32.

3. C. Kros, "Experiencing a Century in a Day? Making More of Gold Reef City," African Historical Journal 29 (1993): 28.

4. N. Worden, "Unwrapping History the Cape Town Waterfront," The Public Historian 16, no. 2 (1994): 33-50.

5. M. Hall, "The Legend of the Lost City," Journal of Southern African Studies 21, no 2 (1995): 179-99.

6. N. Worden and E. Van Heyningen "Signs of the Times: Tourism and Public History at Cape Town's Victoria and Alfred Waterfront," Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, forthcoming.

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