South Africa


How to honour the fallen in ways that will enshrine their memory

Mineworkers gather to plan a way forward near the Nkageng informal settlement on 14 August 2012 after clashes at Lonmin's Marikana mine claimed nine lives. The gathering happened two days before the Marikana massacre. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

The seventh anniversary of the killings at Marikana leads us to contemplate the purposes of physical memorials that insist citizens embrace the larger meanings of events – whether it be the Vietnam War or the dispersal or death of an entire population.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

With the seventh anniversary of the killings at Marikana now upon us, there will be many retellings and remembrances of those deadly days near a platinum mine – in newspapers, online, via social media, and, of course, on radio and television, since so much of what happened was captured on video. Key for many stories will be questions of what, if anything, has changed for the miners in that area (or their surviving families in the case of those who died at Marikana), for the larger community they lived in, or with the actual conditions on those mines since the events of seven years ago.

For some, of course, the central question will be a quite different one. For them, the core issue will be the culpability – or lack of it – of the current South African president who was then wearing his Lonmin board member hat, before ascending to his current job. But for yet others, the big questions are whether, following all the ad hoc investigations carried out by writers, investigative journalists, and filmmakers, and then by that special governmental panel – the Farlam Commission that was empowered to look deeply at what happened – to see if anything has been done to punish those who fired the fatal shots, or those who gave the orders to police on the firing line to do so.

But for everyone who read or heard about those events – whether they were at home or abroad – this event became the end of innocence for South Africa. Until police fired upon protesting miners, it had still been a country in the fraying stages of a still charmed post-apartheid existence. For many, there had remained a stubborn belief in the possibilities of creating the kind of society envisioned by President Nelson Mandela and hoped for by so many of his fellow citizens.

Instead, for too many, those deaths in Marikana have drawn a connecting line through South African history back to the early days of Johannesburg as a mining town, and then to all the other lethal police actions that have followed in places like Sharpeville and Soweto.

But a question that hovers over any remembrance of Marikana’s agonies is what it is that is to be remembered, commemorated, honoured, or recognised – and how this can be used for the education of the current generation, and generations yet to come. For as long as societies have had great events, monuments have been erected. Sometimes, though, an event can come to mean many different things to people, or, perhaps what is being remembered is so terrible, a literal-minded monument cheapens the memory. Sometimes, too, an effort at remembrance just becomes incoherence and even mockery.

For the latter, there is a well-known freedom monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, a statue intended to remind viewers of bitter struggle to achieve independence from The Netherlands, back in the 1940s. Made by one of those foundries responsible for casting many of those giant, heroic heads in the old Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it had been provided to Indonesia as part of the USSR’s foreign aid programme. The monumental statue is in the centre of one of the city’s main traffic circles, but the memorial almost immediately triggered responses very different from the ones intended. It was quickly and irreverently dubbed the “Giant Flaming Pizza Man” due to its uncanny resemblance to a large, bronze, naked man, his face contorted in excruciating agony, as he carries aloft a large pizza that has burst into flames. He is posed in a running gait frozen in the moment, but apparently poised to cross the highway, if the heavy traffic would just give him a chance.

Contrast that memorial with three others: the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, and a remembrance installation in downtown Haifa, Israel. The former attempts to commemorate an event nearly impossible to embrace intellectually, the industrialised murder of millions, collected from across Europe, in the service of a perverse ideology. Placed in a large urban expanse, there are blocks of smooth, unadorned stone plinths that are set in a kind of maze. The fact that there is no writing virtually screams about the enormity of the deed memorialised.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a city virtually overrun with monuments, a young architecture student created the winning design. It was a large, low stone “V” upon which are engraved the names of every known American serviceman and woman who had perished in the Vietnam conflict. Even now, more than 40 years after the war came to a crashing end, public feelings about that war have remained conflicted about the “why” of it, let alone what it wrought on American society or, of course, Vietnam itself.

Many veterans and some members of the US Congress, dismayed by the evident lack of patriotism in the design, ultimately insisted on adding a statue near the walls’ conjunction, depicting struggling soldiers facing an invisible enemy. Regardless of this unnecessary embellishment, an unending stream of people continue to pay their respects to those memorialised; to run their fingers over the names of loved ones or forebears, and to leave momentoes, flowers, drawings, and poems in an unending stream that have all been carefully preserved for the future as another layer of memory.

Anmemorializes was an installation in Haifa I witnessed a few years back. Haifa still has a major Arab-Israeli (or Israeli-Arab) population, even if a significant number of Arabs had fled or were pushed from Haifa during the establishment of the Israeli state. As part of a civic commemoration of the mix of people that comprise contemporary Haifa, the now bricked-up doorways of a group of ancient homes once occupied by Arabs in the old downtown were outlined on the outside walls installed by newer residents. Ghosts. Seeing this memorialisation without much in the way of explicit text forced observers to think hard about what was right in front of them and what that meant.

Here in South Africa, the country’s history still consists of many conflicted landscapes over who did what to whom, and for what reasons. Angry public spats continue to ensue over the renaming of streets and public squares, and the installation or removal of statuary and other art, in response to the changing public and political mood about historical truth.

This is not unique to South Africa, of course. Across America, removing statues commemorating Southern generals or the symbolic placement of the old Confederate battle flag continues to provoke impassioned public fights. Even the installation of a statue of sports great and native son Arthur Ashe on the Richmond street that features many of those old Confederate generals (and slaveholders) brought on a bitter, increasingly racialised public battle in the city that had been the Confederate capital in the Civil War.

And in many places around the world, a great, symbolic moment in any major political change comes when statues representing the old regime are pulled down, painted over, or draped in revolutionary banners. Even now, there are informal museums in the former communist states of Eastern Europe of many of those old-style oversized busts and faux heroic statues, discarded like rejected lovers. (Someday I will visit Boerassic Park in Darling in the Western Cape, where Pieter-Dirk Uys has gathered together the less than savoury but tangible evidence – the material culture – of the apartheid era, lest people even begin to forget.)

But for some important events in South African history, the tangible memorials and commemorations seem too meagre in comparison to the events they commemorate. The Soweto Uprising that began on 16 June 1976 is remembered through a holiday now called Youth Day and the Hector Peterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto. However, the latter barely connects with the actual killing field where students were gunned down as they marched to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in mathematics and science.

In Sharpeville, further to the south, there was that day, 21 March 1960, when 69 demonstrators – protesting at the reviled passbook, as part of Pan Africanist Congress-organised national protests – were killed, and twice that number wounded. The massacre was reported extensively internationally, and it provoked the first real, broad international condemnation of the South African government.

Yes, there is a gateway and an installation of truncated columns installed in a memorial garden, but the larger political and social importance of the day’s slaughter seems attenuated as the day itself has been turned into the blander holiday of Freedom Day. And there is barely a trace of remembrance for the parallel, vast march that had reached the gates of Parliament in Cape Town as part of those protests.

But reach further into South African history, back to 1922, and consider the Rand Rebellion. Remarkably, this massive event is now barely a part of the country’s collective memory. In the years immediately following the end of World War I, the owners and operators of South Africa’s gold mines, in order to bring down operating costs, attempted to rein in salaries of the white miners (working on the mines was already strongly segregated by race), and simultaneously to bring in increasing numbers of black workers to take up semi-skilled positions, but at lower wages than those given to white miners.

The white miners’ union was then supported by the small but vociferous Communist Party of South Africa and it was also broadly in sync with the wave of socialist political agitation in Europe and America, following the end of the First World War. From December 1921 until March 1922, the miners closed down the gold mines across the Witwatersrand, as well as collieries to the east, to press their demands. They organised commandos to hold the mines against the government and some displayed banners reading, “Unite for a White South Africa”. In the end, to break the strike, the government sent in the police, then the army and tanks, and even used the country’s nascent air force to suppress the rebellion.

By the time it had been brought to a conclusion with the capture of the strikers’ main stronghold in a Fordsburg compound (in buildings between Mint Street and Central Avenue) adjacent to downtown Johannesburg, there had been casualties on both sides. The military and the mine bosses had used the nearby Rand Club near the City Hall as their headquarters.

In his 1966 book, 1922 – The Revolt on the Rand, the labour reporter for The Star, Norman Herd, had written of the aftermath:

The tally [of casualties] was finally established as 687. The State forces lost 72 men who were killed in action or died of wounds. Police and military personnel sustaining wounds numbered 219. Including suspected ‘revolutionaries’, casualties among the strikers amounted to 157 – 39 dead and 118 wounded or injured, It was calculated that 42 innocent civilians (18 European; 24 non-European) were killed during the troubles and 197 wounded or injured.

The work of clearing up went on. The harvest of weapons taken in the fighting or confiscated subsequently was sorted and counted, Parliament was informed that one machine gun (captured in action), 1,150 rifles, 231 shotguns, 745 revolvers and about 60,500 rounds of assorted ammunition were taken in the fighting. In addition, 2,350 rifles, 1,050 shotguns and 4,200 revolvers were either handed in to the police or picked up in the searching of houses.”

Among the outcomes of this rebellion, in order to keep the peace and to return the mines to their productivity, racial segregation and restrictions on any promotions for black workers on the mines were hardened; and the local Communist Party abandoned its earlier support for its erstwhile allies in the all-white miners’ union and, under new instructions from the Comintern, shifted instead to advocate the achievement of a “native republic”. Oh, and the then-prime minister during the rebellion, Jan Smuts, lost his leadership role in the 1924 election.

And so that brings us to Marikana where seven years ago the police were again brought in to suppress a rowdy miners’ rebellion – again with predictable but fatal consequences. A century’s worth of police and military actions against citizens over their living and working conditions (regardless of any particular political objectives or the character of the government at the time) speaks to a need to remember them all, collectively, even if the particulars of these actions may remain contested landscapes. So far at least, efforts to determine a fitting way to memorialise Marikana and its consequences have yet to be agreed upon, let alone that the allocation of the blame for the slaughter remains unresolved. Meanwhile, while Sharpeville and Soweto do have memorials, the 1922 rebellion is an event that has become virtually lost in time.

As a result of all of this bloody history, building upon the anniversary of Marikana, we want to propose a memorial that can encompass all of this terrain without trivialising the sacrifices. In each of these cases, whether it was a whites-only government attacking white miners, a white government violently suppressing black anger over the actions of that government, or the post-apartheid government assaulting black miners, the common denominator has been a quick, fatal resort to lethal force used against citizens. (Some will argue that the entire history of the nation consists of lethal force being directed against the inhabitants, from the original conquest of Khoi and San in the Western Cape, to the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars, to the Bambatha Revolt. But the difference lies in the fact that these four – 1922, Sharpeville, Soweto, and Marikana – all have taken place once South Africa had already reached its final extent, rather than being territorial aggrandisement or the further exerting of political control.)

What should this memorial be? While the Howick Capture Site installation by Marco Cianfanelli of those vertical iron rods that resolve into the familiar, yet iconic face of the late Nelson Mandela who had been arrested there can be one model, given the fact that it simply says, “Here!”, the equally compelling image of that “man in the green blanket” at Marikana, standing erect in a field of other miners sitting on the ground, can speak volumes, without resorting to whole tableaux of cheesy or mock-heroic images and statues. It can simply state, “Here we stand for our rights as citizens, in the face of those who would grind us down.” Now, if everyone can just agree where such a memorial should be placed for maximum impact, and to serve as a place for reflection, study, and contemplation – for all South Africans… DM


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