Alternatives to What? Debating New Heritage Practices in South Africa


ALTERNATIVES TO WHAT? DEBATING NEW HERITAGE PRACTICES IN SOUTH AFRICA: Reflections on the Mapping Alternatives conference.

Nick Shepherd (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

Nick_Shepherd@brown.edu

A report in the local newspaper is headlined “Saartjie a step closer to returning home to SA” (Cape Times, January 30 2002). It begins: “The end of a grim chapter in Europe’s colonisation of Africa drew closer yesterday when French senators voted in favour of a law to accord, belatedly, a dignified end to a victim of scientific curiosity”. Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman was a Khoisan woman born in the region of the Gamtoos River in the Cape in 1789. She was taken to Europe by a ship’s doctor, one William Dunlop, where she embarked on a career as a living exhibit in side-shows and museums. Following her death in Paris in 1816 her brain and genitalia were excised and, together with her skeleton, placed on public display in the Museum of Mankind. In 1994, the first year of the new democracy, the South African government formally requested that Sarah’s remains be returned to South Africa for burial, a call which was repeated by the assembled members of the World Archaeological Congress in 1999.

Sarah’s imminent return takes place in the context of the coming into effect of South Africa’s new heritage legislation, the National Heritage Resources Act, in April 2001. In its preamble the Act claims extraordinary powers for the notion of heritage:

Our heritage… helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation… [it] celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequalities. It educates… It facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution.

Clearly, heritage issues retain an unusual salience and intensity in South African society. Clearly, also, the notion of ‘heritage’ provides an unusually interesting and powerful lens through which to examine issues of nationhood, identity, citizenship, restitution and reconciliation – in short, all of those issues which have lain at the heart of the social transformation currently in train.

In September 2001 the Research Unit for the Archaeology of Cape Town (RESUNACT) in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and the Project on Public Pasts (POPP) in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape hosted a two-day conference with the title Mapping Alternatives: Debating new heritage practices in South Africa. Four focus areas were earmarked for discussion: the township tour circuit; community museums; the formal educational terrain; and the process of identifying cultural sites. A guiding intention of the conference was to involve practitioners from both the formal and informal heritage sectors, and starting-out practitioners as well as established figures. A further guiding idea was that a multi-disciplinary approach be adopted, covering the areas of archaeology, history, oral history, conservation, and architecture and planning.

A wide range of organisations were represented at the Mapping Alternatives conference, covering the southern, northern and eastern Cape. Papers were given by representatives from the Western Cape Action Tours project for trauma and self-healing; the Sivuyile Township Tourism Centre; the Tourism Business Council; the custodians of the Tanu Baru site; the Human Sciences Research Council; the Lwandle Community Museum; the South End Museum; the District Six Museum; the Robben Island Museum; the Public Rock Art School; and the Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project. Craig Mathews showed his film, The Himba Chronicles, and Gary Minkley and Sven Ouzman curated parallel exhibitions (“Dislocations: picturing hidden pasts in East London”; and “The rock arts of southern Africa”).

Discussion was detailed and wide-ranging as participants undertook to grapple with the changing nature of the field of heritage practice. If there was a single theme, then it was how the practice of heritage, in a sense, challenges its founding precepts. Both of the instances with which I began this report are based on an essentially simple notion of redress. However, we might ask: What are the complexities and ambiguities of redress in a context in which universities, museums and heritage agencies have lost their primacy as sites of heritage production, and now compete with shopping malls, casinos and game lodges? Or, in a context in which heritage stories have become fragmented and localised, and at the same time – via a paradox which is the central paradox of globalisation – globalised and homogenised? Or, in a context of the commodification and reification of ‘struggle histories’ and ‘histories from below’ (in the case of the Robben Island Museum and the township tour circuit, for example)?

Finally, an intractable question (and for this reason, all the more worth asking): What would a truly ‘alternative’ heritage practice look like in South Africa today? And to what would it be an alternative?

A full programme and a selection of papers are available on the Mapping Alternatives conference website: