Recently Read: History After Apartheid

January 17, 2009

coombscover1In History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, Annie Coombs explores several specific sites of memorial in South Africa, highlighting the ways in which drastic political and social changes call for a re-negotiation of important historical sites. For example, Coombs explores the symbolic importance of Robben Island, as embodying both the troubled history of South Africa and the promise of a new future. Because of the central role it played in the discourse of political resistance under apartheid, the fate of the island during the shift to a post-apartheid society was hotly debated. It was eventually decided that the island should become open to the public as a tourist site. Former guardsbecame tour leaders on the grounds of their past incarceration. The site becomes a “living memorial,” where narratives continue to evolve. 

Her comparison of the Robben Island Museum with the District Six Museum allows her to contrast the ways in which other categories of identity, including gender, enter the discourses of oppression, loss and memorialization. The discrepancy she notes between the two museums is indicative of the importance placed on the struggles of the prisoners at Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela) as opposed to the families displaced by the forced relocation of District Six residents. Written before the completion of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Coombs can only speculate about the way in which the narratives understood through an examination of The District Six Museum and Robben Island are voiced in the new museum space. 

Coombs’ work on contextualizing the implications of a changing history on the physical representations of these histories is interesting in the Canadian context. The Canadian TRC, in other words, is only one way in which this neglected history will be explored. By the end of the TRC’s five year mandate, museums, public spaces and existing and new artwork will have to be reinterpreted.

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