The need for memorialisation in South Africa

By Published On: 10th December 2018

Around South Africa there are many statues of struggle heroes and museums that contribute to commemorating a part of our divided history. Some would say that we do not need such depictions of our past, others say it is part of remembrance and collective memory is important to truth and justice.

Memorialisation, put another way, is a means to keep memory alive. But, why do we have to practice memorialisation, shouldn’t the past be dead and buried?

“Memorialisation is a process that satisfies the desire to honour those who have suffered or died during conflict and as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues,” Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter write in their research on the topic. It is important as it forms part of a sense of history, justice and place, a sense of belonging and social acknowledgement. The reason memorials are conceived, built and maintained is to re-claim an oppressed history and to remember those who have been victimised and died in conflict.

Yet memorialisation has a dark side when the state uses memory to impose a social identity and a false narrative and recollection on the nation. This has negative consequences on victims and survivors who are still healing. It places them in a liminal space, unable to deal with or move past trauma. In this instance they are being recognised as part of a society and yet remain removed from it.

They are removed from society as often the dominant group tends to highlight the roles of famous people who are important within their group. In this way victims who are not part of that same group disappear in the artificial memory of social identity; erased in a way.

Their centrality within the liberation struggle is not recognised and they become further marginalised. A countrywide memorial is considered more important than that of an individual’s memory. The latter’s memorial acts as a very powerful reconciliation tool that enables a common and shared memory and that of the former is mainly an act of remembering the past.

However, this creates the question of how important is an individual’s memory according to state. Thus, the will of those in power reflects in memorialisation and makes it a highly politicised process.

This brings us to what the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) strived for. To bring people forward to tell their stories, for the truth to be known and for justice to be served. The same stories that were told in front of the commission form part of memorialisation, however contested the memory of that narrative has become. It is stories of those same victims whose individual memorials are not honoured by the state.

The process of the TRC is memorialisation in itself. But, how do were remember the TRC and the stories recorded during that period, when South Africans, especially those who came after the TRC, do not know much about the commission? There is very little information about the commission that informs people about who they are/were and their processes.

The TRC was created for people to come forward and tell their stories. Yet, those same stories are being archived somewhere and forgotten. We have forgotten the relevance of the people. It is forgotten because it is treated as a one-time event, and the memory and truth and justice the TRC aimed to achieve has not seeped well enough into the collective conscious and collective memory.

This could be another reason why the state doesn’t value the role of marginalised individuals. The relevance of the people has been forgotten. They also form part of a divided history and South Africa. It seems that we are forgetting that the struggle was not only fought by certain individuals but by a multiplicity of South Africans as well. South Africans who got up every day striving for a semblance of a life in a fascist white supremacist state. Just living was an act of defiance, and we do little to acknowledge the part played by the everyman and everywoman who struggled against apartheid.

In this country we have a tendency of commemorating known struggle heroes. We need to note that there is also a gender component missing here. There are few statues of women displayed in South Africa. But, that is not the only point here.

There are those people who fought in their little townships; unknown people and who deserve recognition. The stories that are not known form part of a divided and new South Africa. It entrenches our fracturedness. There are many untold stories and unrecognised people who want their stories out there. These could be victims themselves or relatives of victims who have something to share. They want to be heard. People need to know about the stories; the untold stories. And they can only know, once informed through the work of the TRC.

The idea of opening up the past to people or the nation is not simply putting information out online and in books. It starts by teachings in schools, through a curriculum, to a generation that will learn, understand and acknowledge the histories from around the country. It allows for meaning and the contextual need to commemorate and memorialise people, places, spaces, lives and things that form part of South Africa. Every bit of our history needs to be outlined and taught in schools.

History shouldn’t be about an extraordinary or important event but of everything that had happened and was not documented. It needs to be shared and passed on to each and every generation. This would allow for fewer inter-generational conflict.

– Caroline Hlekiso

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