Words: Andrea Abbott.
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and supplied.
At Cecil’s departure there was much jubilation. And outrage. Mr Rhodes’ commanding presence atop his plinth at UCT had been part of the physical landscape for decades, just as the man himself has long been part of the landscape of memory.
In his time, of course, attitudes were radically different to those of today. Still, Rhodes played a part in shaping South Africa as did many other high-profile individuals whose sculpted likenesses occupy heritage sites throughout our country.
Does it make sense to obliterate Rhodes, or others, from our collective consciousness? “The past has happened; we cannot wipe it out or re-write it, even if we wish to do so,” says Pam McFadden, curator of Talana Museum in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal. “But we do need to know it as accurately as possible and not look at historical events in isolation and outside the context of the time in which they happened. Otherwise we’ll keep perpetuating incorrect information or myths.”
Heritage Month is a good time to reflect on the statue brouhaha. It generated considerable animosity and division within society, and heritage practitioners expressed their disappointment at the vandalism. Cecilia Kruger, senior manager of the Heritage Foundation, a non-political NPO that conserves endangered heritage resources, comments, “Clear legislation protects our unique heritage assets. These processes should be followed and no organisation or institution – not even the president of the country – should be exempt from following these processes.”
Seminars were organised to discuss the burning issues. Following a national consultative meeting at Freedom Park in April, Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa issued the resolutions that included ‘the need for school curriculum change to adequately reflect South African history and heritage in all its diversity and complexity.’ As Pam says, it’s about knowing the facts.
Some facts might come as a surprise.
“A difference between African and European culture,” says specialist battlefields and culture tour guide, Pat Rundgren of Dundee, “is that Africans don’t put up statues, but Europeans do.” Until the recent past, Pat explains, Nguni-speaking people lived transitory lives, moving on when resources like grass and wood were depleted. “They never erected anything permanent because they couldn’t take it with them.”
In remembering the dead, the buffalo thorn tree or umpafa was enlisted. “Ancestral spirits were recovered from warriors killed on battlefields far from home, using an umpafa twig.” Trapped on the thorns, the spirits were then transported home. “Umpafa is a natural ‘monument’ that will still be there 50 years later when the family returns.”
Cecilia Kruger echoes Pat’s view. “Producing tangible likenesses of leaders or ancestors in the form of statues, portraits or memorials has not been a characteristic true to Africa, where oral traditions have been the vehicle of remembering great people and events.”
But what about the statues of, for example, Shaka and Madiba? “African countries have become increasingly Western in addressing challenges and adopting western traditions,” Cecilia says. “And the significance of creating statues of African leaders and role players has come to the fore.”
Pat agrees that acculturation is a factor but adds that an umpafa has been planted at many monuments to African heroes in KZN. “Cultures remember their ancestors in different ways. The trick is to appreciate other points of view. Don’t throw paint all over a statue, but at the same time refrain from chopping down an umpafa.”
Annie van de Venter Radford, deputy director at Amafa, KZN’s provincial heritage agency, suggests using unifying aspects of heritage to prevent emotional, biased response. “We should focus on symbols that are common to everyone. We could build, say, a monument to the unknown mother.”
Symbolism characterises the ‘new breed’ of monuments that Amafa has created to mark histories not previously acknowledged. The evocative Spirit of Emakhosini in Zululand, for example, honours the seven Zulu kings buried in the Emakhosini valley. Rather than individual statues, seven giant animal horns represent the kings.
The agency’s next project is a memorial to the Indian stretcher-bearers of the South African War. Named the Indian Ambulance Corps, the group was organised by Gandhi. “I was born on the Gandhi settlement in Inanda,” says Thiru Munsamy, who heads the University of KZN’s Ghandi Luthuli Documentation Centre. Giant murals at the Centre’s entrance portray Indian heritage in KZN, beginning with the arrival of the first Indians under the Indenture Scheme of 1860.
Thiru says that most Indians in South Africa, like himself, are descendants of those labourers. “Durban has the highest population of Indians anywhere outside of India.” Along with that population, comes an exotic heritage whose manifestations – temples, colour-splashed ceremonies, even curry – are as much part of the history of the east coast as are the cane fields where those indentured labourers toiled. Today, people tracing their Indian roots call on Thiru, who can easily help them if they have the indenture numbers their forebears were assigned. This is thanks to the centre’s archives where original documents detailing the history of South African Indians are kept.
“Museums and archives are important store houses of original documents, which should be researched, rather than the public repeating printed information that can be incorrect or biased,” Pam McFadden says. “If you want to know some of your family or community history it’s often only museums or historical societies that have saved documents and items that can give a correct view into the past.”
Giving a view into the past is what Pam and her team do well at Talana Museum. One noteworthy event is Talana Live that commemorates the Battle of Talana every October. “It’s done in a manner that can be enjoyed,” says Pam, “and so that people can learn and think about the past without realising they’re doing so.”
Heritage isn’t only about monuments; it’s the sum of what’s been passed down through the ages. “This isn’t a machinery graveyard; it’s the real thing where a 26km railway with 25 restored steam locomotives and three diesels operate in harmony with agricultural machinery, steam road-engines and trained teams of rare Afrikaner oxen in a setting resembling a small town rather than a farm in the Eastern Free State,” says Wilfred Mole, founder of the Sandstone Heritage Trust that was established to protect the 2 000-item collection.
Internationally hailed as world class, it is nevertheless ignored by the relevant authorities at home, despite many approaches to them. “Much of South Africa’s world-class heritage has disappeared in recent years or is in the process of disappearing,” says Wilfred.
“Examples like the Apple Express in Port Elizabeth, and many of the museums, underline the sad state of affairs.” South Africa, he adds, must recognise that old machinery was not politically motivated and was simply doing a job. “It was designed for all members of the community at that time and produced the food, moved the goods, and pulled the ploughs.”
Food supply was one of the reasons behind the concentration camps that incarcerated Boer women and children during the South African War. “To prevent families taking provisions to the commandos, the British practised a scorched-earth policy,” Colonel Jan Malan (Ret. SA Army) and chair of the SA Defence Force Association tells me. “The Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein commemorates the estimated 34 011 who perished in those 50 camps.”
But how many know that 64 other camps were built simultaneously for black women and children? “Up to now nothing has been done for the almost 20 000 black South Africans who died under the same circumstances as the Boers,” Jan says.
But now comes an ambitious reconciliation project that’s to involve a wide range of groups – from government departments to the executive at Freedom Park, private organisations and military veterans. “The aim of the Concentration Camp Tour is to take some of the lessons of the past, so that together we build a better future for all in South Africa,” says Dewald Lloyd of TourismZA. “And to correct distorted perspectives of our heritage. Segregation was not started by the Boers, but by the British of that era.”
Spearheading the project are Colonel Jan Meyer and aspiring historian, Twin Mosia from Petrus Steyn in the northern Free State, a pair whose backgrounds couldn’t be more diverse. “Many are unaware that the South African War was not a ‘white man’s war’,” says Twin. Introduced to one another by Dewald, Twin and Jan are organising a national cycle event comprising nine simultaneous tours (one per province) to black and white concentration camps in 68 towns between 1 and 15 December 2016.
“Two stones from each camp will be collected for The Reconciliation Monument to be erected in Petrus Steyn on 16 December,” says Twin. “It’ll recognise all who died in the South African Wars; the first such monument in the country.” The tour is part of a broader project to create sustainable tourism in the townships where the black concentration camps are found.
“We still carry a lot of suffering from 120 years ago. But what is it we really fought for? Are we making a place where our children will want to stay?” asks Jan. “We want to use this opportunity for joint commemoration, recognition and reconciliation.”
To end, a statement from Twin. “It’s not white history, it’s not black history; it’s South African history. Our history.”