Monumental failures? Memorialisation, authority and disconnect in post-liberation Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Jonathan Fisher

26 November 2019

“’The liberation struggle’ is a key political, historical and discursive resource for many of southern and eastern Africa’s contemporary governing parties. An often lengthy and violent campaign against unjust and oppressive rule, the struggle not only brought liberation movements to power, it also imbued them with the moral and political authority to radically restructure the ‘post-liberation’ political order,” said STIAS fellow Jonathan Fisher of the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham.

STIAS Fellow Jonathan Fisher during his seminar on 21 November 2019

“How do post-liberation governments deploy this resource, however, as memories of the struggle begin to fade, and as wartime heroes-turned-leaders retire, defect and expire? How do post-liberation leaders preserve the salience of struggle narratives in states where the majority of the population were born after the fact, or where, decades later, the promise of liberation remains unrealised? How do they articulate their normative and historic victory over corruption, militarism, and authoritarianism when their own records in power remain so questionable?”

“What do post-liberation governments ‘do’ with their struggle heritage as time goes by, and how should we interpret their approaches to struggle memorialisation and commemoration?”

These are some of the questions that Fisher highlighted in his presentation to STIAS fellows and which form the basis of wider research and a book project which is funded by the Newton Fund and British Academy. Fisher and his colleagues have undertaken fieldwork in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

He highlighted that many of the political leaders in these post-liberation societies were rebel leaders who, in some cases, were involved in bush wars for up to 30 years and who therefore see violence as a political tool – a mechanism for transformation. At the same time, these leaderships have also demonstrated a sustained commitment – at least during their liberation struggles – to progressive ideas about, and programmes for, a more fair, just society – like those who conceptualised the Freedom Charter in South Africa. Fisher pointed out that traditionally democracy has been seen by some political science analysts as the end point of political evolution, with authoritarianism as an anachronism on the way. Most post-liberation polities are, however, governed by authoritarian politics and it is therefore critical to understand authoritarian rule not as a midpoint on the road to democracy, but on its own terms. Fisher is interested in unpacking the ideas that make people think authoritarianism is desirable and legitimate, and the role played by governments in promoting such ideas.

“There is often a strong sense of the struggle embedding authority – giving the leaders a permanent claim on rule.”

“My project is about legitimation,’ he said. “How governments seek it and what resources they employ to achieve it.”

The goal is to understand how this is articulated with one aspect being the struggle memorials and heritage sites in these countries.

“Politics is about the management of space,” he said. “What governments do with public spaces is therefore important.”

“Memorialisation is one mode to inscribe the narrative of struggle – to make it permanently visible. Especially when it’s no longer a recent memory.”

But the process of such memorialisation is not necessarily coherent. In some cases it involves extensive consultation – such as that before the development of Freedom Park in South Africa, but, in other cases, it’s more reactive.

“There is often no plan or script for developing this national narrative. It’s a haphazard, opportunistic process which often occurs decades after the struggle and is linked to times of political challenge, regime anxiety and threats to legitimacy.”

He pointed to strategies of accommodation, subversion and re-inscribing.

“There is often a problem of what to do with existing structures,” he said. “This has been approached differently in different countries.” He highlighted Rwanda where the Presidential Palace has recently been transformed into an art museum – “an explicit re-circumscribing of what the past means”; Namibia, where new structures have been built alongside old German colonial buildings; and, Freedom Park in South Africa which is positioned directly opposite the Voortrekker Monument “although the path linking the two is sometimes closed or inaccessible”.

“So in South Africa and Namibia there are attempts to accommodate but simultaneously subvert.”

“Re-inscribing is about putting a different identity into a public space. For example – erecting statues of Mandela all over the place which has happened since the first one in 2004 – reminding you of his omnipresent legacy and heritage. But what is also often interesting is Mandela’s depiction in these statues as an avuncular, friendly, unifying grandfather figure not a political leader. It’s an ambiguous image where he is claimed by the country but owned by the ANC.”

He also pointed out that memorialisation is often used to ‘flatten’ the struggle narrative.

“The struggles usually involved different actors sometimes fighting against each other. Now it’s seen as important to make a single narrative out of winning the struggle. An example in South Africa is the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto which downplays the broader role of the Black Consciousness Movement.”

Changing times

Changes over time reflect the political climate. Here Fisher pointed to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the house in Brandfort in the Free State where she was banished for nearly a decade from 1977. Initially money was allocated to the site but it never, ultimately, reached it and the space increasingly became an abandoned, crime-ridden spot, albeit one which has once again received community interest and refurbishment since her death in 2018.

“The Mandelas’ home in Vilakazi Street, Soweto is another interesting example,” he said. “Originally named ‘Winnie Mandela and Family Museum’ but later changed to ‘Mandela House’ reflecting the erasure of her separate identity but also the fact that tourists expect to see Mandela.”

“The meaning of spaces changes according to the vagaries of politics.”

Absence of popular engagement with these sites is another interesting aspect. Fisher indicated that Freedom Park was originally envisioned as a place where families would go to have picnics “But few visit Freedom Park,” he said. “It’s seen as a bureaucratic, institutionalised space – which puts people off.” He compared it to similar sites in Ethiopia and Namibia – “which are also not visited – most people are not even aware of their existence”.

In discussion, he addressed the tourism aspects as well as the economic dimensions of memorialisation.

“Who builds the memorial and pays for the upkeep and why, is important,” he said.

“Also having to buy a ticket may be a barrier to entry. Some spaces are seen as only accessible to the wealthy or those with a certain level of comprehension.”

“Often history is being invested in for a particular purpose.” he added. “For example, the Rwandan government has frequently emphasised the horrors of the 1994 genocide to remind the international community that they didn’t intervene to stop it, which justifies continued international support.”

But he also pointed to the danger of reading too much into the intentions behind the space “Often it’s not what people were thinking when they created it. The ANC is one of the only liberation movements that invested in serious and inclusive conversations about what heritage looks like and means.”

“Such sites don’t offer the space for all understandings and explanations. It’s been a challenge to develop a theoretical conceptual approach to this work. Marrying looking at just physical spaces and understanding the full political intent behind them is difficult.”

“How the spaces stand for and speak to post-liberation politics is interesting. In many cases they still seem to reflect the disconnect from the communities from which these government’s seek legitimacy.”

“There is a growing crisis of legitimacy faced by many of the continent’s post-liberation regimes, and the heritage structures they erect and memorialisation spaces they delineate increasingly make this visible,” he added.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw





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