Image: James Eades (Unsplash)

After the killing of George Floyd and the intensification of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) in May, we also saw renewed and intensified calls across the globe for the removal of statues that continue to glorify white supremacy. White supremacy was once again called out publically while those supporting it called for respect for heritage and memories that “do not hurt anyone”. The reality is, commemoration has meaning connected to it. It focuses on certain aspects of a past, what is remembered and what should be forgotten.

After any violent conflict, the question always arises, “how should painful memories be addressed in the public sphere?”. Forgetting can be an injustice to the past but remembering can do the same for the present and the future within any ever-changing society. Commemoration sites calls for remembering. What is being remembered mainly depends on the position where members of the community were placed during the conflict. Remembering takes place through the individual and the collective. Individual memory relates to the individual who remembers the past from their own perspective. Collective memory is transferred through a wide array of public and private spheres and by a variety of actors. It is the memory that a group shares and is shaped by the needs and context of the collective group. These collective identities comprised out of shared images, representations, and experiences of the past which in return shapes social solidarity. Memory is not history, it is the reconstruction of past events, emotions, perceptions, and feelings. This reconstruction can have constructive and destructive affects within society.

Places of commemoration put names and faces to victims, reinforcing victimhood as an identity. Commemoration acts can have emancipatory effects for groups in that it allows groups who were oppressed to express their own memories. During Apartheid, non-white South Africans were denied the right to have access to cultural institutions. In 1999, the National Heritage Resources Act was passed, this paved the way for newly built museums within South Africa that commemorated the histories of all South Africans. One example of these newly built commemorations was the Red Location Museum. This museum was built in New Brighton, a township where early African National Congress (ANC) civil disobedience, against the Apartheid regime was recorded. The museum resembles the red iron rusted shacks found in the township, it was a community-based initiative and allowed for members from the township to contribute through their stories, documents, and some possessions, to tell their own stories and experiences of Apartheid. Commemorative sites also allow for the creation of new narratives for victims. Robben Island, the political prison used by the Apartheid government not only represents a place of oppression but also resembles to some, a place where a new nation was born through those who were captured during their sacrifices to fight against oppression. This commemoration allowed for interpretations of not just remembering the violent past, but also collectively remembering how the violent past was overcome.

The act of remembering and forgetting after violence is also a political act. It becomes a selective tool in that only some memories are being remembered while other memories are repressed. During the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015, the country was divided. The movement called for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who was an imperialist who believed in the supremacy of the Englishman. He was also the architect to the Glen Grey Act, the blueprint of the Apartheid regime that restricted black people from land ownership. The National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein has also been criticised for its limited representation of the conditions of black concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War while mainly focusing on the white women’s plight. Governments also use memories to influence attitudes, behaviours, decisions, and identities. The ANC mainly honours ANC members while non-ANC members who also fought against Apartheid are forgotten, like Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Beyers Naude.

Clark, writes that commemoration can work against reconciliation. The problem with collective memory, is that it rests on the premise that it is shaped by different groups who have different memories. Reconciliation aims to achieve closure and healing. This process involves the acceptance of historical and political narratives and shared truths. Therefore, an agreement needs to be reached to achieve reconciliation.

Often during the reconciliation process, the idea of forgetting is a strategy used to maintain fragile peace by suppressing memories in the public sphere, through eg. truth commissions. After Apartheid, former president F.W. De Klerk proposed that the book to the past should be closed, that all South Africans should forgive and look towards the future. This narrative assumed that the memories of violence and oppression can be pushed aside and be forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) echoed the same message. TRCs assume that truth telling leads to reconciliation and that the past will be left behind. A banner inside the court read “revealing is healing”. The TRC process was criticised for placing pressure on victims to forgive and to reconcile with the perpetrators and to forget the past. The reality was however, different in that the consequences of Apartheid were not just remembered but still experienced by a majority of South Africans.

Achieving continued reconciliation between different groups that are ever-changing is a difficult task. Forgetting violent pasts should not and can not be the objective. Forgetting violent pasts cannot be achieved as it creates fragile peace and memory is connected to identity formation that is based on the reconstruction of past events, of lived experiences, emotions, perceptions, and feelings. To remove commemorative sites can also affect the reconciliation process. Former president Nelson Mandela warned, “We must be able to channel our anger without doing injustices to other communities. Some of their heroes may be villains to us. And some of our heroes may be villains to them”.

Collective memory will always remain within a society. Continued reconciliation can only be achieved through cooperation, it involves the acceptance and agreement of historical narratives and shared truths. These accepted and agreed upon shared truths are ever changing within society and should be re-evaluated as society changes. No society can be reconciled if not all members within society accepts these narratives and truths. This is possible in that memories are created through the interactions between and among members of the society. It is however important to build these narratives on history.

By Susanna Deetlefs

Susanna Deetlefs holds a MA in Security Studies from the University of Pretoria and an MSc from Durham University. She was also the recipient of the prestigious Chevening Scholarship. Her expertise and interests lie in the field of peacebuilding, gender studies, security studies and trans-national organised crime. She is currently working as an Ad-Hoc researcher in the fields of political violence and trans-national organised crime.

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