By Thand’Olwethu Dlanga
The ANC is exhibiting the past in the present by forging narratives, images, metaphors, and symbols to create a specific perspective. The purpose of that perspective is to make sense of the past in ways that render their present actions more plausible. Oliver Reginald Tambo, as valuable as he was in the liberation struggle, does not deserve an additional expensive statue from the tax-payers pockets as unveiled at Ekurhuleni some few weeks ago. Be that as it may, my gripe is not only about the expense involved in curating and unveiling that statue but is about the curation of public memory and heritage in post-1994 South Africa.
The recent OR Tambo statue and other liberation ‘heritage’ commemorative actions we see today come after 1994 government-sponsored struggle history became a dominant historiography trend in South Africa. This trend relies upon and is fixed upon a specific perspective – a dominant or triumphalist perspective by ANC. This is a dangerous stark of work that presents contemporary liberation history as a dichotomy between those who were on the right side and those who were not. The “right” side is that of the freedom charter and anything else regarded as the ‘wrong’ side. It is an abuse of history that overtly declares itself as a truly South African liberation project that draws in as many people as possible so that it is confirmed a truly national character.
The unveiling of the bronze colossus statue in Ekurhuleni further makes conscious that state apparatus is manipulated to harness the dominance of the ruling party, neglecting, and undermining the contribution of other liberation movements to influence post-apartheid public memory. That additional OR Tambo statue confirms a continuous political hegemonic narrative of the liberation project for party political ends; if it was not the case, why place ANC insignia on a ‘public’ heritage? These politics of memory desire to protect and inspire a narrative and a ‘moral excellence’ of the ruling party against the radical postulations of Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and Azanian People Organisation’s (AZAPO) decolonisation stance.
During the unveiling, the South African President stated, “to the world, OR Tambo was the voice of South Africa’s liberation movement because he articulated the aspirations of every South African man, woman and child who yearned for freedom”, and because of this, he deserves such ‘symbol of our triumph as a nation over injustice’. This is a beautiful and moving tribute to Tata Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo. Such an acknowledgement to persons who were the voices of the liberation movements in the world during the monstrous time in the history of South Africa is highly valued, but why not do it to all the people who were voices of liberation movements in the world?
If it were not for the abuse of liberation history by the ruling government for party political ends, South African society would know that the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) lobbyists, David Sibeko and Edwin L Makoti managed to get Apartheid South Africa regime expelled from the United Nations General Assembly in November 1974. These sons of the soil were South Africa’s liberation torchbearers at the UN for years. The voices of the liberation struggle in the world were not solitary affiliates of the freedom charter as being depicted today, but they also emanated from other political persuasions like PAC and BCM. The curation of public memory of post-1994 as it has reflected time and time again including the recent unveiling has proved that when Mr Cyril Ramaphosa said we ‘telling the world that we have not forgotten our heroes, ‘Our heroes’ to him implies ANC liberation struggle heroes and nobody else.
The master narrative of liberation history that has encapsulated contemporary South Africa’s historiography, has subsumed other experiences and framed them into a homogeneous collective memory that dictates public history to fall in line with the ANC’s idea of national identity narrative. Such abuse of history and politics of memory are not sustainable, and the slumber created by the homogenous public memory is surely a dangerous work. On paper, the National Heritage Act promotes the democratization of heritage, history, human dignity, remembrance, and national unity but practically, one narrative is preserved as we see with many OR Tambo statues. If the ruling party was so confident about its liberation struggle credentials, why not allow for the promotion of other liberation heroes like Edwin L Makoti, Sabelo Phama Gqwetha, Nomvo Booi, Muntu kaMyeza, Zubeida ‘Juby’ Mayet, and importantly David Sibeko? If the country is existing under a democracy, why not democratize the liberation history?
The unveiling of OR Tambo statue celebrating his 103 years has little to do with public interest but everything to do with entrenching the ANC’s credentials in our collective memory. Memory is a weapon and what we are made to remember is important. South Africa’s ruling ANC is using that weapon and abusing history to coerce the public towards a homogenous cohesive society.
Thand’Olwethu Dlanga is a student of Political Sciences and Historical Studies at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity.
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