“Big Men” in New Museums - John Wright

8 Oct 2018 - 09:30
The purpose-built Buthelezi museum in Ulundi, opened in 2015. A statue of Chief Buthelezi stands in front. (Photo: John Wright)
The purpose-built Buthelezi museum in Ulundi, opened in 2015. A statue of Chief Buthelezi stands in front. (Photo: John Wright)


In April this year, APC research associate John Wright travelled from his home in Johannesburg to visit two recently opened museums in KwaZulu-Natal. He joined up with Gerhard Maré, a research associate in the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg, and Steve Kotze, a member of staff of the Local History Museums in Durban. Here Wright gives impressions of their tour.

A six-day trip to Zululand and Durban. My first venture in some years across the uKhahlamba mountains. A useful reminder of how different these places are from where we are out west on the highveld. Especially in the form of a stifling Zuluism that has actually taken deeper and wider root since 1994. A Zuluism which, it is now clearer to me, has its roots not only in the history of the Zulu kingdom but also in the history of colonial Natal, and - although I am much less versed in the sources on this—in British imperialism beyond that. And today in a whole stew of Inkatha/ANC intersections and rivalries.

Gerhard Maré and I joined Steve Kotze at Fugitives' Drift Lodge near Rorke's Drift, across the Mzinyathi river from Isandlwana. The Lodge aims to provide the authentic Africa/Zulu experience in the bush for largely British tourists. A number of whom had just arrived and were experiencing their first taste of Africa beyond Oliver Tambo airport. (Helped by the kudu and zebra and the six or seven beautiful giraffe that roam nearby.) The little museum there focusses on nothing but brave men's military history in 1879. As do the provincial heritage sites at Rorke's Drift (which still sells beautiful rugs) and Isandlwana.

At Mgungundlovu, the site of Dingane's capital in the 1830s, the focus in the modern museum is on the region as the location of ancestral Zulu kings' graves. You hear recordings of brief excerpts of all the kings' praises, down to those of the present king,  Zwelithini, as given by Zwelithini's imbongi. Subdued lighting as befits a place of sacred memories. Very little on Dingane and his capital, and the guides were not very keen on our wandering off by ourselves to view the adjoining site of the actual umuzi. We went anyway. Thin displays in the museum: a major chance lost - or avoided - to give a compelling history of what Natal colonial official James Stuart described 100 years ago as 'this great historic capital'. And which one of his African interlocutors, who had lived there in his youth, described as 'a place of death'.

The highlight - if that is the right word - was our visit to the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Museum and Documentation Centre in Ulundi, opened in 2015. Another modern building, paid for by Big Business - details not provided - giving the Big Business view of Buthelezi's career, as inflected very much, as has long been the case, through the South African Institute of Race Relations. Visitors are greeted outside the entrance by a statue of the man himself - still living, of course - and inside by the words 'Impilo Yobuqotho: Courage under fire. Traditionalist, Activist, Statesman, Philosopher, Christian, Politician, Humanitarian, Friend'.

The outside, circular display hall gives an account of Buthelezi's political career as a man of peace, non-violence, and a protagonist of a multi-racial society, who rubbed shoulders throughout with the Great and the Good, from Harry Schwartz to Olaf Palme to Margaret Thatcher to Julius Nyerere and, especially, Nelson Mandela. The inside hall focusses on Buthelezi's family history, highlighting particularly its close links with the Zulu royal house.

Nothing whatsoever, as one would expect, of the role played by Inkatha in the violence of the 1980s and early 1990s, except in a defensive role against an ANC which sought to make the country 'ungovernable' (Oliver Tambo's words at the time: now also an SAIRR trope).

The displays are almost entirely of large, well-chosen photographs, with an overwhelming amount of captioning to read. Virtually nothing by way of material objects, though there is a large, stuffed white lion at the entrance, and models of elephants and other animal emblems of power dotted about.

The Luthuli Museum and Documentation Centre at Groutville also focusses on the life and career of one man. No statue, but a sitting figure at the entrance which is so lifelike that for a moment both Gerhard Maré and I thought it was a living person. The museum is in the modest house which Luthuli occupied from the time he was elected a kholwa chief in 1936 until his death in 1967. Again, displays mainly in the form of photos and captions, focussing primarily on the Struggle period from the 1950s onward, when Luthuli was president of the African National Congress. With much on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize (for 1960) to Luthuli in 1961. And on the visit to him made by Robert Kennedy in 1966. And on aligning him with Mandela. Nothing on the long-standing controversies about his role as an ANC leader.

All interesting enough, but it's about the making of an iconic political figure rather than the life of an individual. Very little on the deep amakholwa context which was important to Luthuli. The museum was set up by the national Department of Arts and Culture in 2004, and is still run by the Department. The current displays were set up in 2017 to mark the 50th anniversary of Luthuli's death. The museum has a staff of 13, who, according to Steve Kotze, should be doing a lot more by way of researching and mounting displays.

The uThungulu District Municipality, based in Richards Bay, puts out a glossy tourist brochure on what it calls the 'Route 66 Zululand Heritage Route'. The 2016 edition lists 64 'Places of Interest', mostly sites related to the history of the Zulu kingdom and the Zulu royal house. Neither the Buthelezi museum nor the Luthuli museum yet features in it. Among the miscellaneous places that do feature is no. 30, 'Tap Tap Liquor Store'. Here, the brochure tells us, you can meet former South African middleweight boxing champion, Tap Tap Makhathini, in person. And then there is no. 25, 'Home of President Jacob Zuma'. As angrily conflicting new forms of Zuluism confront one another in KwaZulu-Natal (and elsewhere), one wonders if, and how, this item will be listed in the next edition.


The documentation centre at the Luthuli museum, Groutville, opened in 2017. The museum itself is in Luthuli's house, behind the photographer. Steve Kotze in doorway. (Photo: John Wright)

The documentation centre at the Luthuli museum, Groutville, opened in 2017. The museum itself is in Luthuli's house, behind the photographer. Steve Kotze in doorway.
(Photo: John Wright)