Opinionista J Brooks Spector 11 March 2013

A decent proposal

To enrich the legacy of South Africa’s sites of national memory, the custodians of this history would do well to take a few leaves from the book of Williamsburg, Virginia, in the United States, where the professional re-enactors of the colonial capital’s living history troupe constantly test the notion of truth. And since education need not exclude entertainment in the Williamsburg model, it’s one South Africa’s unemployed actors should jump at.

You, who are on the road, must have a code, that you can live by.
And so, become yourself, because the past, is just a good bye.
Teach, your children well, their father’s hell, did slowly go by,
And feed, them on your dreams, the one they picked, the one you’re known by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

 — Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Last year I took my daughter to visit Robben Island. She was living in Cape Town, was making her way in the South African music scene and it seemed right she get more of a sense of the country’s history in all its complexity. She had lived all over the world and it seemed the right thing her understanding of how this country had come to be the way it is should be grounded in a sense of where it had come from. Yes, she has many relatives and close friends that stretch across South Africa’s racial spectrum, and yes, she had attended university here, but knowing where you are now also demands an appreciation of where you have come from.

And so we boarded the boat at Cape Town’s harbour and we were rewarded with an absolutely beautiful day – azure skies, cerulean water and the kinds of temperatures that belonged in an advertisement from an SA Tourism advertisement. On a previous visit to the island a few years before, my wife and I had sailed across over choppy, dark waters on a chilly, foggy, even foreboding evening to see a special performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio – acted and sung in a real Robben Island prison exercise yard. What an idea. It was an eerie but perfectly apt space for an opera that exults in the idea of liberty and celebrates freedom from oppression – and its magnificent music is given over to the mouths of the prisoners and jailers alike.

On the second, more recent visit, together with a busload of other visitors, we saw the prison cells, quarries and other areas where generations of prisoners had lived and laboured. The efforts of the current director to professionalise the tourist experience are clear – the bus routes run smoothly, the facilities are clean, and the guides are energetic. And yet while the trip gave my daughter and me a great deal to talk about on the way home and into the evening over dinner, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing in that experience on the island. For one, the actual, tactile material culture of the prison – the tissue and sinew of the prisoners’ daily life there – was virtually not in evidence. Where, for example, were the very blankets and mats the prisoners had been forced to sleep on; where was the rudimentary furniture they used, the bowls and cutlery allotted to them for meals; where was the Spartan clothing they were permitted to wear; and where was any evidence of what they could, or could not, read, sent to them from the outside world?

But, second, the guides inside the jails seemed on a peculiar kind of autopilot. A friend joked with me the other day that they seemed to him during his own most recent visit to the island with an American relative almost like tape recordings where the tape had been worn through in spots – almost as if they had done this gig a few too many times and the recorded information needed to be re-recorded. In a way, of course, it is hard to blame them for this. Many of the guides are former inmates rather than professional actors and so they try to impart their connections to their past with a kind of first-person earnestness rather than dramatic verisimilitude.

But here is where part of the long-term problem for such an important historical site is located. The other day, I happened to read an article about what are called historical interpreters, while they were in training at Williamsburg, Virginia, in the United States. Williamsburg of course is the premier reconstructed historical site in America. It was the capital of colonial Virginia from 1699 until 1780 when the state’s officials decamped to the newer settlement of Richmond, closer to the frontier. But Williamsburg was the site of all of colonial Virginia’s historic speeches and votes – and many  key speeches of the Revolutionary War period actually took place there. But, by the 1930s it had become a small backwater. It still hosted a prestigious university, William and Mary, but little else of any interest. Enter a saviour of the place. The unimaginably rich Rockefeller family had long taken an interest in Early American furnishings and décor – and then that expanded to a concerted campaign to preserve and restore the entire colonial world of Williamsburg. Well, almost.

For decades, the administrators of Williamsburg had developed a sophisticated set of human exhibitions as well as the buildings and furniture. These historical re-enactors and interpretive historians took on period costumes and speech but also thoroughly researched the actual trades and activities of the people they were re-enacting. The blacksmith made the actual nails and other hardware used in the rebuilding and restoration of period buildings – and he only used authentic tools and techniques of the period. More than just being a blacksmith, he also had to be a scholarly and technology-savvy archaeologist as well. When one visited the place, most people were part of self-guided tours, taking themselves from one building to the next on their own or in small groups. In peak years almost a million of them went into the exhibits and buildings, asked questions and talked with the carpenters, brick makers, printers, cooks, glassblowers and every other trade working in the dozens of buildings in Williamsburg. For most, this first-hand experience with history was the real highlight of a trip there.

Then in 1979, there was a second revolution in Williamsburg. It began to dawn on the people who ran it that there was something seriously missing in its portrayal of colonial America. Something very big – as in half of the historical inhabitants of the town. Until that moment, Williamsburg had essentially ignored the idea that at least half of the capital’s inhabitants were slaves or free blacks – one never saw a trace of their presence among the corps of historical re-enactors. And so, over time, a growing cadre of black professional re-enactors have been added to the cast of the Williamsburg living history “troupe” to give Williamsburg more of its essential truth.

A recent Washington Post article followed one of the newest recruits (a professional actress) to this programme, watching as she tried – hard – to get into her new role, to absorb her own responses to stepping into the skin of an 18th century black female slave and then to figure out how to react to the callous comments of the tourists. By the time of the article, she had already had one such exchange with a young child who asked her if she was a slave and, upon hearing “yes”, ordered her to go and get him a drink! Clearly, nearly 150 years after slavery was abolished and almost 50 years after the 1965 Civil Rights Act became the law of the land, some Americans continue to struggle to come to grips fully with the results.

And that’s the crux of the discussion for South Africa too. Soon enough, the corps of ex-prisoner guides at Robben Island will be retired. And soon enough, too, virtually everyone visiting Robben Island, the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill, and other key historical way stations on South Africa’s road to a more democratic society will be too young to have experienced any of the history associated with these sites. For them, these places may just be empty buildings with plaques at their doors where someone says something important happened within.

As a result, a proposal: The time is here and now for South Africans to take a leaf from Williamsburg’s operating manual and shape it for South Africa’s own needs. The country needs a strong cadre of actors who can sensitively and effectively interpret the reality of these important historical sites for tourists and school children – for foreigners and local citizens alike. Imagine travelling through the prison buildings on the island and, instead of looking at four empty walls, one sees a group of men, listening carefully to a lecture run by another prisoner that was part of the reality that was the “Robben Island University”, the name of the political education the prisoners gave each other during their stays there. Imagine seeing the tough – even brutal – interactions between prisoners and warders. Given the current climate of South Africa’s desperate need to create decent jobs, here is a perfect way to employ out-of-work actors who would put their hearts and souls into such a task. And, of course, there are now all the memoirs and reminiscences of actual prisoners to draw upon to create the scenes that would carry the weight of historical accuracy as well as substantial dramatic energy. It doesn’t have to be shallow and Disneyesque to entertain and educate.

In recent months, I have had the chance to see revivals of some of the classics of Apartheid-era struggle theatre such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. The first of those follows the travails of a man whose internal passbook, his dompas, doesn’t allow him to live where he can find the work necessary to support his family. The other, of course, details the relationship between two prisoners on Robben Island as they wrestle with how to use Antigone, the classic work by Sophocles, to demonstrate the deeper truth of the struggle against Apartheid. And the thing of it is hundreds of young people, who could not be expected to remember the reality of Apartheid, have flocked to see both of these plays, asking each other if things really were like that. The power of good drama to describe – to get inside – the truth is both amazing and real. As a result, to ensure succeeding South African generations can understand where they and their society have come from, increasingly it will matter that the national sites of memory draw in their visitors so they can enter fully into the experience – and truly inhabit such places and their memories. And in so doing, they will be able to keep alive the very ideals that animated those who were kept there in the first place. DM

Read more:

  • The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the official website
  • Robben Island Museum, the official website
  • Slavery is a tough role, hard sell at Colonial Williamsburg, at the Washington Post
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