“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.” — Milan Kundera
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the world into turmoil and confusion. In the process, we have been propelled into the unknown. What was once considered “normal” is no longer considered such. The impact of the pandemic has been felt worldwide and has affected all sectors of society.
Independent museums and historical sites – “sites of memory” – are no exception. In South Africa, many are suffering and struggling to survive in an environment where the lockdown has completely disrupted their ability to generate income, which at the best of times has been insufficient to sustain them. Financial and other forms of support from the government have at best been minimal and at worst non-existent.
In an article written by Suné Payne for Maverick Life entitled The future of the iconic District Six Museum hangs in the balance – yet another Covid-19 casualty, the acting director, Chrischené Julius of the District Six Museum, was asked what she would say to the relevant government departments about financial assistance.
She responded, “I would say it’s important to support independent museums, whether it’s the D6 Museum or independent heritage projects. I think there’s a real sense that we need independent cultural spaces that are able to speak truth to power.”
Julius said that “it’s not just the lack of revenue that is a problem, it’s [also] the lack of shared experiences that is of concern”.
She articulated a symptom which is rooted in a particular psychosis inflicting South Africa today: that for many, the past holds no meaning and no relevance to the prevailing social milieu or current discourse. It is against this backdrop that sites of memory have a significant and meaningful role to play.
The function of museums and historical sites, whether state-controlled or independent, includes the preservation of the memory and meaning of past events, actions and decisions so that people today may understand and learn from the social, cultural and political dynamics of those times. These sites provide the foundations upon which a cohesive, integrated society can be constructed, and where a sense of national identity and common purpose can be forged.
Unfortunately, we have fallen victim to the notion that our history bears no relationship to how we understand and navigate the present. However, historical events provide an interpretive framework for us to frame, shape and define our cognitive understanding of the present. As such, we need to remember and reflect on those significant historical events that contain within them an explanation as to where we as a country have come from and offer ways to think about, shape and define the direction we intend to head in.
Thus sites of memory stand as testimonies and vivid recollections and reminders of the passage of time. They ensure that events and actions that shaped our world today are not lost and ultimately forgotten. They are our tie to the past, but also our connection to the present and our bridge to the future. As Sir Winston Churchill so aptly remarked, “the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”.
Today we are facing the stark reality that many young people, even twenty to thirtysomethings – the born frees – have very limited or no personal recollections, emotional attachments or memories of the Struggle and its guiding principles and values. Their outlook and narratives are being shaped by a new set of material conditions, desires and expectations, which in most cases are either at odds with or have little or no connection to the past.
Liliesleaf commemorates a strategic and seminal point in South Africa’s history and represents a beacon on the national and international landscape of human memory. It is more than just a historical site that is rich in history and tradition. It is what underlies this rich history and tradition which ultimately personifies the essence and meaning of the site.
As a National Heritage Site, a site of memory, it enables visitors to recall its stories and events through immersive and dynamic interactive exhibitions, and in so doing ensures that this period in South Africa’s recent history is preserved for current and future generations.
Sites such as Liliesleaf and District Six educate, inculcate and foster a collective memory of awareness, understanding and consciousness. In the Maverick Life article, Julius comments:
“There is a loss of dignity with forced removals – there’s hurt, there’s trauma that people experience, and the museum is an important part in working through those stories and those emotions.”
The struggle now is about keeping these memories and this legacy alive. It is this that Liliesleaf strives to achieve and uphold. As a site of memory, it is linked to a series of events which had and still have significant historical meaning and relevance. The name Rivonia is associated with a series of transformative historical events; a pivotal moment in our struggle for freedom, justice and equality. However, nowadays few people would link the name Rivonia to these events – and once these associations are broken the historical meaning of Rivonia will eventually become lost in time and ultimately forgotten.
In the past, the mere reference and mention of the name Rivonia would have been associated with the raid on Liliesleaf farm and the ensuing Rivonia Trial. Among born frees and other segments of the population it is merely associated with Rivonia Road in Sandton, and for them no longer forms part of a defining moment in our historical edifice and narrative.
It is not just places, but also names of places that have fallen victim to this loss of historical identity, meaning and translation. It is quite evident that we are trapped in the idea that by simply naming buildings, places and streets after stalwarts of our liberation movement we are somehow preserving and perpetuating their memory and what it symbolises, means and represents.
Thus sites of memory such as Liliesleaf stand as testimony and vivid recollection and reminder to the passage of time. They ensure that events and actions that shaped our world today are not lost and ultimately forgotten.
It is against this backdrop that a site of memory can be used to re-inculcate the very essence of a collective memory. A site of memory articulates both individual and collective historical memory. It provides a platform for open expression of events and activities, and their purpose and meaning relating to the past and how they have come to shape, define and influence the present.
Liliesleaf has become a focal point and articulation of what underpinned and defined our liberation struggle. It gives sense and meaning to the ideals, principles and values that defined our struggle.
“I am what time, circumstance [and] history have made of me.”
We must therefore ensure that we protect, preserve, support and embrace our national historical treasures.
The struggle today is one of “memory against forgetting”. DM/MC
Nicholas Wolpe is the founder and CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust.
"It's the friends you can call up at 4am that matter." ~ Marlene Dietrich
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