Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Commemoration, Memory and Monuments in the Contested Language of Black Liberation: The South African Experience

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Commemoration, Memory and Monuments in the Contested Language of Black Liberation: The South African Experience

Article excerpt


The memorialisation of the June 16, 1976 Soweto student uprisings remains a burning question in South African public life. On the thirtieth anniversary of this commemoration the Sunday Times -a lead national newspaper- begs an answer to this pertinent question:

   So how best do we thank those girls and boys who, armed only with 
   stones, took on a mighty state? Do we put up monuments in their 
   honour? Do we compose heroic poems about their valour? Name public 
   institutions after them and their deeds ...? 
   The way to honour them is to realise their dream of creating a just 
   and decent society. (Editor; 2006; 38) 

It can be argued that since the advent of the post-1994 political order, South Africa, has been in the grip of a "memory boom" (Liddington and Smith; 2005). These are the "physical markers of past violence and repression" (Hamber and Wilson; 1999) and memories of struggles for liberation. This "arena of societal struggles over memory" (Hamber and Wilson; 1999) has manifested itself in various ways, ranging from the popular annual commemorations of Human Rights Day on March 21, formerly known as Heroes Day or Sharpeville Day; Freedom Day on April 27; Workers Day on May 1; National Youth Day on June 16, previously Soweto Day; Women's Day on August 9; Heritage Day on September 24 and the Day of Reconciliation on December 16, which in the past was commemorated as Dingaan's Day by some South Africans and the Day of the Vow by others. Seleti, a heritage specialist and academic assert that:

   ... the instituting of national holidays that commemorate 
   significant milestones in the struggle for freedom in South Africa 
   helps the nation to appreciate the importance of history, heritage 
   and memory in the crafting of the present and future of this 
   country. It attempts to counteract amnesia as the basis for 
   nation-building. (Seleti; 2006; 6) 

Alongside the commemoration of national days has been the emergence of a number of museums, among them the Robben Island Museum a site with multiple layers of history but, known world wide for the incarceration of political prisoners and has been declared a world heritage site; the District Six Museum a site for the memory of forced removals particularly of the people of District Six; the Apartheid Museum; the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorates the June 16 1976 Soweto student uprisings; Constitution Hill on the site of former notorious No 4 prison and also home of South Africa's Constitutional Court; the Red Location Museum of Struggle in Port Elizabeth; the Sharpeville Exhibition Centre and Monument on the site of the shooting in 1960 on marchers in the PAC led Positive Action Campaign against the Pass Laws; and Freedom Park a massive memory project responding to one of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) calls for symbolic reparations.

There have also been a number of community initiatives to erect monuments and memorials, partly as a reaction to being marginalised by state initiatives. Among these is a Pan Africanist Congress of Azania monument in Mamelodi dedicated to more than 60 PAC/Poqo operatives hanged between 1963 and 1965 who to this day lie buried in unmarked graves. Other initiatives include reburials to honour the sacrifices and heroic acts of the liberation struggle, and to initiate processes "of opening for bereavement, addressing trauma and ritualising symbolic closure" (Hamber & Wilson; 1999; 4).

In various parts of the country, streets, buildings and stadiums are being renamed in the face of heated debates and contestation including challenges through public protests, petitions and court cases (Flanagan; 2006). The debates and contestation mirror the political cleavages of the past whilst ushering new tensions. The new state sees the reimagining of public memory and history as part of the process of transforming the South African society from the old apartheid colonial order to reflect a new democratic society. …

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