Posted on September 13, 2011

"There is, in my view, a South Africa from which we have departed, a regime that we have conquered, an old order that is behind us. But there is a new South Africa that we have not entered. A new South Africa for which we continue to long, to yearn and to strive: the New Land of our dreams.

And in between these two countries there is this time and place we are now - a land that is not the same as the land from which we departed in 1994, yet a land that is not yet the land of our dreams - a land between the two lands, a time between the two times"
Reverend Bongani Finca, from the annual Tiyo Soga Memorial Lecture, 2011.


September is Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the past in the present, and to reflect on the way in which we, as South Africans, are dealing with the past.

Taking Finca's speech as a starting point, I offer ten reflections on heritage in a time of transition.

In a time of transition, institutions of memory - archives, museums, heritage resource agencies - pursuing the ideal of a new and more just society are caught in a dilemma, struggling to come to terms with who, what and how to remember; and who, what and how to forget.

Consider, for example, the heated debates over public monuments, statues of political leaders of the 'old regime' and the renaming of streets as an indication of the way in which yesterday's heroes have become today's villains and how those once branded as terrorists have become revered leaders.

Shifting values and attitudes impact on the manner in which the fluid relationships between past, present and future are addressed.

Many institutions and organisations dealing with heritage and memory incorporate 'past', 'present' and 'future' into their vision or mission statements. Consider, the different values expressed in injunctions such as statements such as 'from the past, in the present and for the future'; 'forget the past, live the present, dream the future' and 'cherish the past, build the future', and the message this sends about how the past is viewed.

In choosing to adopt a particular approach to the past - to reconcile or forgive - the difficult issues, the grim history and our shameful legacies of betrayal, collusion, the gross violations of human rights and the vexed issue of race have, to a large extent, been silenced, disavowed or set aside.

Recent events - the Constitutional Court judgement that allows for Robert McBride to be labelled as a 'murderer' for crimes for which he was granted amnesty; the Malema 'struggle song' ruling and Archbishop Tutu's call for a wealth tax on whites are symptomatic of a growing concern that South Africans have not even begun to deal with the difficult past.

As power shifts from one group to another, the dominant story of the past, the 'grand' narrative, is replaced by another.

Heritage institutions face profound challenges as they seek to deal with the legacy of the narrative that shaped their activity while at the same time striving to align their programmes with new values and principles and to address previously disavowed or marginalised histories.

In focussing on the grand (political) narrative, we run the risk of losing sight of the everyday lived realities of ordinary people.

As institutions set the record right on the recent past, to acknowledge an extended history of repression and resistance, there's a growing groundswell of interest in the finer grained stories of everyday life; the micro-narratives of differences, diversity, and divisions of our shared past. This is evidenced in the extraordinary number of communities, families and individuals who are engaged in researching, recording and presenting their histories.

As archivists, historians and heritage practitioners we have to remain alert to what is gained and what is lost when our actions - collecting, researching, safeguarding, publishing and programmes - privilege one version of the past over another or fail to engage adequately with the nuances of our history.
None of our actions are innocent. The way institutions order, name, control, map, depict, count and classify the world reflects and reinforces a particular set of values!

In a time of transition heritage practitioners have an important role to play in shaping society's collective memory.

As existing institutions transform and new structures emerge, space opens up for different agents - the state, government, the ruling party, citizens, family groups, communities - with contesting agendas.

Repressive regimes tend to exert their control over the version of the past that is promoted in public institutions. Some go as far as enacting laws to silence versions of the past that are considered to be 'unacceptable'. In considering the power of the state to determine what may be remembered, performed and celebrated, and what may not, we need to be mindful of an important comment issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and published recently that makes the point that "laws that penalise the expression of opinion about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the Covenant (the International Declaration of Human Rights) imposes on States parties in relation to the respect for freedom of opinion and expression."

As the sector redefines itself and its practice, it's time to test our assumptions about our memory institutions and reassess the role of our national, provincial and local memory institutions and the ways in which these interact with those community, family and interest based heritage practitioners.

In focussing on the day-to-day business of transforming heritage practice the sector seems to have lost the will to envision a transformed landscape. We need to ask some critical questions: are we sure that our national institutions of memory are structured appropriately to meet the needs of the broader sector; are we sure that civil society has adequate opportunities to engage with institutions and play a role in shaping these; are we sure that resources are being directed to the areas where they are required? We need to engage in robust debate on these issues!

We need to be ever mindful of the need to preserve the record of the present, for the future.

The making of history starts not with the telling of the story, but with the assembly of evidence - the document, photographs, and the oral histories that we preserve in the present shape the stories that our children and future generations of historians and heritage practitioners will tell tomorrow.

Sometimes it seems that we are so busy looking backwards into history that we disregard the need to document the present!

As we move from where we have been, to where we want to be, we have an opportunity to imagine the 'land of our dreams' - and a new landscape for heritage practice

Heritage practitioners are traditionally viewed as neutral custodians of collections or repositories of material rather than as active agents for change. Terry Cook, writing about the role of archivists in a transformed landscape says, "As the co-creator of archives, the archivist makes history. Archivists shape society's texts, and are part of its story, not just its footnotes."

As heritage practitioners in a time of transition, we all need to take this advice to heart, to become agents for change!

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform