May 9, 2011

What to do with the historical legacy of Apartheid?

Pierre de Vos has an excellent post on the subject:
Let us instead focus on the broader issue relating to the manner in which we deal with this symbolic aspects of our past, our present and our future. All over South Africa rivers, mountains, towns, streets and squares are still called by the names given to them by those who colonised the country. Driving over another Black river, past another Landsdown, over another Retiefskop, one is reminded of the fact that for many of those who arrived in South Africa from Europe, the people who originally lived here and named these places before the arrival of the colonists were at best invisible and at worst less than fully human.

One also finds statues, museums and monuments which celebrate not only the language and culture of the colonists but also the very racial domination which subjugated the majority of South Africans...

One way to deal with this problem is to try and erase the colonial past completely and to impose a new rather self-serving and distorted version of our history on all South Africans by renaming everything after the heroes of the political party who happens to have won the last few elections. This is always a tempting option. After all, as George Orwell wrote in 1984: ”Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Another option is to pretend that we have no past and to rename everything after bland and uncontroversial things like flowers and trees and to remove all traces of the memorials and monuments of the past regime and not to create new memorials for a new world. This approach calls for a kind of moral, cultural and political amnesia, which would in effect rob us of part of our identity as South Africans. In any case, this approach would not satisfy too many people.

A third option is to be a bit more creative and to play with the often absurd, shocking, contradictory, delightful and moving aspects of our past and of the ways we are grappling with how to deal with our different perceptions of ourselves, our pasts and our futures. Sometimes such attempts will not be very successful. I mean, what can be more absurd than to drive past the Mandela-Rhodes building in Cape Town. These people must have a rather perverse sense of humour: commemorating the arch imperialist, racist and colonialist in the same breath as the father of our nation.

But sometimes the weird juxtapositions can work wonderfully. This usually happens when complexity and nuance wins out over slogans and ideological certainties and platitudes. Where there is a willingness to remember the horrid aspects of our past in an open, honest and inclusive manner – to remember without erasing, to memorialise without monumentalising - the effects can be rather startling.

I remember an art history lecture back at Reed comparing the monumental and architectural legacy of fascism in Germany and Italy. As I recall, the German approach was to bulldoze most of the Nazi legacy, while the Italians mostly left what hadn't been bombed, leaving fascist buildings sometimes side-by-side with ancient Roman ruins. It's important to remember the past, but an thorny question for a country with a checkered history.

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