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Date: Sun, 9 Jul 1995 21:01:54 -0200
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From: ancdip@wn.apc.org (tim jenkin)
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Subject: Mayibuye July 1995

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Creating Our Past

By Judy Seidmann, Mayibuye, Vol. 6, no. 3
July 1995

Truth and reconciliation needs to extend behind the confines of the courtroom, and into the world of art and culture, writes Judy Seidmann.

A Russian civil servant recently told Roger Jardine, director general of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology, that their country does not only have an unsettled future, it has an unsettled past. This sentiment could be aptly applied to our nation as well.

Working in arts and culture is not merely making pretty pictures, or exciting drama, or harmonious sounds. It is more about finding out where we are as people, as individuals and as society; where we come from, and where we are going. And then saying this in a manner that other people who see or hear it think: "Oh yes, of course, now I understand."

This means that we need to define, as artists and cultural workers, not just what we see around us at any one moment, but the whole fluid movement of where we come from, and where we think we are going.

Today, our country finds itself in a fierce debate over whether it should have public disclosure of past crimes; about whether we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how far it should extend. But discovering the crimes of the past is only one step towards understanding our past, and coming to terms with it.

We need also to commemorate and preserve the other side of that history: the heroism and sacrifice of so many people, the statement of human worth in the face of a crime against humanity. The other side of oppression is resistance and liberation; and we need to celebrate that.

A year after the people's victory in the 1994 elections, we have not one public sculpture commemorating our victory.

Creating our past is not a matter of destroying 'existing' history. Most cultural workers would not agree to tearing down the statues of Van Riebeeck and Smuts as a sign of rejection of the politics that they represent. Those statues, and the glorification of conquest that they represent, hold a place in our history, even if it is a place that has been distorted and misrepresented.

We need not even advocate destroying the actively offensive statues, such as the statue to the 'victims of terrorism' in Pretoria, or the white settler discovering gold by Johannesburg's Eastgate (appropriately named Settlers Park). Rather than destroy such works, we would propose they are quietly moved to less prominent places where they need not offend passers-by on a regular basis; but could be seen and considered by those who wish to visit them.

This has been done elsewhere; in India they established a park to remember the dead British empire.

It is not a matter a tearing down statues. Rather we should look at creating new ones: statues that commemorate not the triumphs of now-deposed rulers, but that remember and honour our people's history and struggles and victories.

We need to commemorate where Hector Peterson died, where the 1976 uprising began. We need to commemorate Freedom Square in Kliptown. We need to commemorate the 'unknown miners' who were sent home to die of silicosis and TB, having spent their lives building South Africa's economy of gold. We need to commemorate those young men and women who gave their lives to MK.

The Gauteng ministry for sport, recreation, arts and culture has recently obtained R50,000 from the provincial RDP to begin within the next few months this process of honouring our past. Project Commemoration asks artists and communities to identify sites and events that are of importance to our history, and to create 'commemorative markers' for these sites.

These markers could range from metal plaques - perhaps, a plaque on the house of a local comrade who gave their life in the struggle, recording the date and manner in which they died - to sculptures and murals recording where major events in our history occurred. One proposed sculpture, already under construction by Mpho Ngwenya, is a life-size group of statues reflecting the death of Hector Peterson.

Another proposal is to paint a mural on a government building from a design by Thami Mnyele, an exiled artist who was killed in the 1985 SADF raid on Gaberone.

Artists or communities who wish to commemorate a site or event in their area should contact the Gauteng ministry. All proposals for works of art and commemorative markers must be approved by community organisations where they are to be located. It is hoped that although the RDP funds are very small and can only cover basic costs, communities in some cases may wish to contribute to provide more elaborate construction.

We have a history to recall with pain, but also with pride. Let us show our children and the world that we have not forgotten that.

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