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A partial remembering of The Arch ahead of his first heavenly birthday

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Dr Bonita Bennett is a memory and heritage practitioner and a member of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. She was Executive Director of Cape Town’s District Six Museum from 2008 to 2020.

The memorialisation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu presents us with an exciting challenge to imagine ways in which his powerful legacy — in all its richness, contradictions, contestations, joys and pain — can be foregrounded, drawing on his humanity, his humility and his connectedness to people.

The current context of memorialisation in the new South Africa (post-1994) has to a large extent been defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which our dear Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the chair. It was legislated into existence by the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995.

It finished its work and handed over its report three years later to almost as much criticism as there was praise. As happened with the truth commissions that came into being in other countries such as Burundi, Kenya, Chile and Argentina in periods of post-conflict, memorialisation has been among the processes identified as being part of symbolic reparations. It was linked to truth-telling discourses, and it affirmed people’s right to personal and collective remembering, as well as to mourn and memorialise.

In South Africa, it was an acknowledgement that the omissions and erasures of the past, as by-products of colonialism, slavery and apartheid, were among the range of injustices meted out to the country’s black people.

In 1997, at the opening of SA’s first post-apartheid National Heritage Site — Robben Island — the late president Nelson Mandela appealed for a more inclusive approach to cultural heritage and memorialisation, reminding the country that these could not stand apart from the promises made in the new Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He emphasised that such an approach would “strengthen our attachment to human rights, mutual respect and democracy, and help prevent these ever again being violated”.

There has been much critique of the state’s ability and progress on the level of inclusive and participatory memorialisation as part of strengthening the much sought-after and elusive social cohesion.

The memorial practices inherited from colonial and apartheid SA were exclusive, alienating and largely based on a mode of representation which was Western and colonial. Even though post-1994 the sector had been tasked with new ways of looking at the past, it followed the “great men of history” approach that has long been critiqued in South Africa.

In the 1970s, a movement known as the History Workshop based at Wits University in Johannesburg was among the entities that started looking at a more inclusive way of understanding history and did great work in shifting the centre of history-telling from being the exclusive domain of the academy.

In addition to new methodologies, it also changed the focus of historical content creation to concentrate on documenting the unknown stories of people who were part of historic events but who were not the known or iconic names. This approach has persisted, but mostly in the non-governmental sector.


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Places of memory such as the District Six Museum, which has been the place where I largely forged my own memory practice, have demonstrated the powerful possibilities inherent in thoughtful and embodied processes of memorialisation. It has contributed to building the esteem of its community members through the valuing and valorising of their stories.

It is a practice that is mindful of the danger of the “great men of history” approach, cognisant that it can erase the stories of others. The District Six Museum has had to find the balance between honouring the great contributions of iconic leaders in ways which did not overshadow the smaller voices.

It has had to find ways of humanising leaders in the context of the communities to which they have been both practically and symbolically connected by representing them in ways which are multidimensional and which can embrace multi-vocality.

Another component of the context of South Africa’s memory practice is the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement which started in 2015. It has contributed to the ongoing contestations about different versions of history, particularly critiquing South Africa’s colonial inheritance of memorialising in the Western mode of monumental edifices.

The memorialisation of the Arch in Cape Town needs to take all of these contextual factors into account. It presents us with an exciting challenge to imagine ways in which his powerful legacy — in all its richness, contradictions, contestations, joys and pain — can be foregrounded, drawing on his humanity, his humility and his connectedness to people.

I can’t deem to be able to say with certainty what the Arch would prefer or not, but I cannot imagine that he would be comfortable being elevated in ways that erase the stories of others.

Cape Town is a wounded city. There are places in the city that retain traces of those wounds of enslavement, of torture, of incarceration and of so many levels of pain that we can only speculate about. We are surrounded by sites which “contain” segments of this painful past: the Slave Lodge, the slave auction block, apartheid jails, unmarked burial grounds, the colonial castle.

Some of us are more attuned to the lingering traces which come to the fore sometimes more than others. Some Capetonians attest to experiences of hauntings that many can relate to.

So what does it mean for the spirit of the Arch to live on in St George’s Cathedral? How does it connect both to other places (such as the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation) as well as to other stories? How will the pedagogy of remembrance be made accessible to all?

I put these as questions, hoping that the ongoing work of memorialising his life will provide some answers.

Memorialisation has taken a largely site-specific or place-based turn. Much work has been done about thinking through how places tell stories, and how they can provide canvases for the telling of stories that are contested and even contradictory, rather than using sites to prove authenticity and coherence. The international examples provided by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience have provided wonderful examples of this.

The “People’s Cathedral” was the name which was coined for St George’s during Archbishop Desmond’s time. It truly had a special place in his life even beyond his tenure as the archbishop. The Arch chose to have his mortal remains interred in front of the high altar of this “People’s Cathedral”. The telling of the story of his life is inextricably interlinked with the telling of the life of the People’s Cathedral.

I have called this a partial remembering. Firstly, because there is no complete and full story of a person’s life — even a great life — and it will always be told from a perspective. This perspective is mine, but at the same time it is one which is shared with others, and it emerges from collective engagements with other memory and memorialisation practitioners.

I acknowledge my partiality to a great man who has been a beacon to me and others of my generation of young Christian activists in the 1980s who insisted that the church needed to be a site of struggle. His unwavering and courageous example and his affirmative affection and support modelled a way of being a robust activist in a humane way.

I am proud to declare that I am partial. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mpho Tutu van Furth says:

    As another partial practitioner of memorialisation I can only thank you for this thoughtful and thought -provoking piece.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Declaring one’s partiality … as compared to fundamentalism .. is not a crime ! A recent article in DM embraced the notion of ‘compassionate confrontation’ … which probably sums up the approach of Arch!

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