Making the Nation Visible to Itself – Lecture in Paris, January 2019

21 Jun 2019 - 10:00
Some of the Master’s students in the class held at the Natural History Museum, Paris in January 2019. Thanks to students for permission to use this photo. C Kros


APC research associate Cynthia Kros was invited to teach a class in January 2019 in a module for a master’s degree in museology by Dominique Guillaud, research director of the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and co-director of a heritage observatory run jointly by universities in the same neighbourhood cluster and the Natural History Museum, known as the Alliance Sorbonne Universités. The Master’s module bears the title: Approche Patrimoniales: Instruments et Contextes (A Heritage Approach: Instruments and Contexts).


The heritage observatory run by the Sorbonne alliance is generally referred to by its acronym OPUS (Observatoire des Patrimoines). It was founded in 2016 because of what seemed to be striking developments around heritage (patrimoine) in the wider world as well as the academy. The range of actors and the different ways in which heritage was adopted and employed for a myriad of purposes cried out for sustained attention. OPUS aims to provide a space in which heritage can be examined from many perspectives and inter-disciplinary work is able to flourish. The Observatory is committed to overcoming clivages (splits, or as we often remark in South Africa the ‘silos’) that generally divide the natural from the social sciences and perceptions of what constitutes material as opposed to immaterial heritage. The module for the Master’s course in question aims to help students understand processes of patrimonialisation and embraces pedagogies designed to facilitate critical analysis and theoretical debate.

Re-Reading the Act

Teaching a class in the Master’s module, which was on heritage policies and practices in South Africa required reading the 1999 Heritage Resources Act again while trying to anticipate what would make it intelligible for a French audience, and inevitably being compelled to revisit the period which gave birth to the Act, as far as it is possible to do after 20 tumultuous years. One of its features that was often remarked on by scholars at the time was the Act’s endorsement of a particular notion of equilibrium. If we thought of the country as a sort of ungainly ship – not at all like the splendid Titanic of James Cameron’s roughly contemporaneous 1997 movie except for its stark class divisions – then we might say that the decision made by the captains was not to heave large amounts of questionable cargo overboard when the ship started to founder, but to take on more ballast to settle it.

As it happens, in the author’s memory at least, the image of the Titanic was quite often invoked in the late 1980s and ‘90s in order to make the point about how close South Africa was to being involved in a fatal collision. It is important to recall this sense of impending catastrophe in order to understand what the Heritage Resources Act was trying to do and to appreciate how much work it was expected to accomplish. We might almost hear the sailor on the night watch in Cameron’s film desperately shouting to the skipper: ‘Turn! Turn!’ as he caught sight of the massive iceberg bearing down upon the ship.

The authors of the Heritage Resources Act applying themselves to their task of averting serious conflict (or even more serious conflict than was already present in the country then), visualised the heritage landscape as being weighed down by memorials that celebrated the achievements and creations of the colonial and apartheid periods and therefore predominantly of white men. Consonant with the stated objectives of the new government, the way to redress this situation was thought to be not to remove or destroy the heavy material presence of previous regimes, but to create commemorative artifacts and spaces and, under the influence of international heritage bodies and Australia’s Burra Charter, to find ways of recognising – giving weight to – what was called intangible or living heritage. The ‘recovery’ of the Archive was also considered significant in this connection.

Twenty years on

Twenty years later we find that besides the disappearance of some of the most notorious figures like Verwoerd and more recently Rhodes – publicly dethroned by means of a massive crane, which somehow succeeded in finally making a mockery of its pretensions to be Rodin’s Thinker in the Southern Hemisphere - the old statuary and monuments have remained mostly undisturbed. However especially in some parts of the country the heritage landscape has also changed, sometimes quite markedly with the addition of memorials and sites that seek to recognise the contributions of people who resisted state oppression in many different kinds of ways in the period before 1994. There has also, of course been a proliferation of Mandela memorialisation. The most recent at the time of writing is the bronze statue of Mandela mounted on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall – and in the last week removed by international filmmakers apparently without the knowledge of principal City officials and causing the statue to miss the 29th anniversary of the occasion it was created to celebrate when 50 000 people turned out to see South Africa’s most famous political prisoner hours after his release on the 11th of February 1990.

The Mandela statue on the City Hall balcony was made by sculptors hired by Dali Tambo’s company Koketso Growth, which advertises itself as specialising in ‘creating world class heritage sites’. The Company was commissioned by the City of Cape Town and is already well known for its production of the 100 or so life-size bronze figures of the Long March to Freedom installed at Pretoria’s Fountains Valley resort. Commentators sometimes remark critically on the persistence of bronze statues as illustrative of how hard it is to break from colonial practices and genres of memorialisation. Invariably, the riposte is that there is a marked popular preference for the same materials and for memorials at the same scale as the old ones, so as to give the new statues the means of facing down their colonial counterparts – to give them, we might say, the same weight.

Looking back at it now we can see how the Heritage Resources Act was obliged to run after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), mopping up the bloody spills and apologising and working out novel ways of compensation for the hurts and humiliations of apartheid – all of course without causing the ship to capsize or be declared unseaworthy. As if this were not enough, the Act also had to make a nation. One of the most fascinating aspects now, in retrospect is how certain the authors of the Act were that there was a nation in waiting. The issue was thought to be that the nation was not yet visible to itself, but would be made so by consolidating and naming the ‘national estate’.

Gained in translation

There is nothing quite like translation from one language to another to magnify nuances of meaning that might be lost in a monolingual reading. In her extremely competent and sensitive translation for the slides in the Power Point presentation prepared for the Master’s students, Dominique rendered the phrase ‘national estate’, which appears in the Heritage Resources Act as ‘les biens de la nation’. ‘Biens’ can mean ‘property’ – much as ‘estate’ does in the phrase cited - but re-naming it more explicitly as ‘property’ reinforces the sense of it as something concrete, inalienable, potentially wealth-generating and, as the Act says, capable of being passed down through successive generations.

At this point thinking about how ‘heritage’ (patrimoine) itself is rendered in French proves to be illuminating. Evidently the ‘patri’ alludes to ‘father’ and the word as a whole means ‘father’s properties’. Would it be true to say that our heritage legislation is built on a sustained assumption that we are only able to recognise ourselves and our relationship to our country people through a bequest that comes through the patrilineal line? We recognise the idealism in the making of the 1999 Act that hoped to bring the far-flung and disputations heirs together around the table as they learned about the demise of the old order. But as we confront the ramifications of various kinds of material redistribution in South Africa, we might want to revisit notions of heritage that depend on a more or less stable sense of what the ‘bequest’ comprises and how – over many years – it was accumulated.