A Report on the Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins Colloquium – From 1992 to 2018?

24 Dec 2018 - 11:45
Caption: Photo of the black urban gardening project done with JAG described in the report. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kros


Thinking back to 1992

At lunch on the first day of the recent 'Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins' colloquium, hosted by Wits' School of Architecture and Planning and the Wits History Workshop, a comment that one of the organisers, Hilton Judin, had made in the course of the morning sessions, prompted us to haul out the slightly faded poster from the conference with a similar theme organised by the History Workshop nearly three decades ago. That one was titled: 'Myths, Monuments, Museums: New Premises?' The year was 1992 and the question mark reminded the few survivors of the earlier conference who were present of the tentative hopefulness of the era shortly before the transition to democracy. What struck some of us was that Penny Siopis' image on the old poster of the Voortrekker Monument being pulled down by an anonymous mass of people with, as the survivors recalled, the last minute addition suggested by Phil Bonner of a slightly smaller group determinedly tugging it back into place still seemed disconcertingly apposite. As most readers probably know, the Voortrekker Monument itself continues to thrive and, far from being dismantled or ostracised, has acquired official heritage status, which ironically it did not enjoy under the apartheid regime.

In one of its several subheadings the old poster strongly implied that  'multiculturalism' was in need of 'subverting'. It seems improbable that 'multiculturalism' would be proclaimed as an adversary today. Perhaps the word itself is no longer fashionable in any circles. But what seems to have happened in the years since the early 1990s is that the rise of identity politics and what was briefly referred to in the recent conference as the 'trope' of reconciliation have allowed the Voortrekker Monument to pass itself off as an innocuous repository of nineteenth-century Afrikaner history and culture. Indeed in making the announcement in 2012 that the Monument had been declared a national heritage site the then Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile said: 'Today marks a historical milestone in the journey to build a South African nation that is truly united in its diversity' and directly invoked 'reconciliation' as a motive for the declaration. According to the government web-site that reported on Mashatile's speech, the Voortrekker Monument merely 'commemorates the pioneer history of Southern Africa and the history of the Afrikaner' (SAnews 2012).

In the 1992 conference, following arguments made by scholars such as TD Moodie, Dan O'Meara and Leonard Thompson, the re-enactment of the Great Trek, which culminated in the laying of the foundation stone for the Monument, was understood to be the product of careful strategizing by Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals to whip up the kind of Afrikaner nationalism that coalesced to bring the National Party to power in 1948.  In the 1992 conference, the multivocal symbolism of the Monument's architectural design that rooted the descendants of the 'pioneers' in Africa, while allowing for their enduring connection with what were held to be the finest points of European culture, was skilfully dissected. It is odd that all these years later, in 2018, catching sight of the magnitude of the political premeditation behind the Monument's origin and design still feels like something of a revelation.

One of the other subheadings on the old poster read: 'Controlling the Past'. In the early 1990s we had little doubt about the identity of the controllers in a broad brushstroke sense, although there might have been some dispute about which fraction of capital it was that was hegemonic and the precise nature of its alliance with the state. The 1992 conference was not particularly concerned with these debates, however. In any case, perhaps over the last couple of decades they had begun to wane more generally in left-wing academia. It was clear, however that the institutions of public culture were responsible for disseminating and perpetuating what Leonard Thompson would have called the 'mythology' of apartheid - although since he was a historian of the Liberal School we probably would have preferred not to quote him in those days (Thompson 1985).  An important component of that mythology, it should be noted and it is a field to which the present author has returned, was that whereas South Africans of European descent had dynamic histories, those who were classified under 'Bantu' categories were in possession of timeless, immutable ethnic cultures that were represented through decontextualised material artefacts like pots, spears or beadwork. It was important to respect and even nurture these so-called cultures – preferably in ethnically demarcated regions that had been separated from the main body of South Africa. The supposedly advanced nature of European 'civilisation' was, needless to say, a justification for the defeat and domination of other groups of people over the course of three centuries – to put it in a nutshell.

In 1992 it is probably true to say that most of the conference participants were focused on looking for ways of inserting particular histories into dominant narratives that had doggedly excluded them. This included the pseudo-nostalgic mise-en-scène created by the makers of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town and the seeing a 'century in a day' museum-cum-amusement park at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg. They were assumed to be emanations of finance and mining capitalism respectively. So it was not that capitalism was absent from the discussion by any means. But the participants were primarily impelled by a sense of urgency for finding strategies to supplement evocations of Victorian décor with stories of slavery and prison labour or the dusty glamour of the early mining town with statistics of miners' phthisis and descriptions of compounds. And the various possible narratives that were being considered by curators and academics for a retelling of local history, in the case of, for example the Africana Museum then trying to assume a new identity as Museum Africa were also prominent. In a perspicacious article published a couple of years after the conference, Carolyn Hamilton considered the advantages and drawbacks of avoiding a strong uniform narrative for the new museum (Hamilton 1994).

A touch of utopianism was probably necessary for keeping up morale at a moment when the transition to democracy, which after all had been expected to arrive roughly when other countries in Africa were winning their independence, but had been brutally deferred many times since, was still not assured. We focused on versions of new narratives that would firmly dispel the old mythology and provide the basis for a pedagogy that would equip citizens of the new democracy to grow and protect it. In 1992 we were not faced as we are in 2018 with the reality of serious funding shortages that leaves the buildings that house Museum Africa or the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in a state of sorry decay – even at the cost of millions for restoration work as in the case of the latter – and isolation from their potential clientele.

In 1992 we simply thought a better, more inclusive narrative would attract more publics. In 2018 we know that we are going to have to work harder at dissolving what has proved to be the almost impermeable barrier between JAG and its natural constituencies. Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho of MADEYOULOOK suggested through the presentation of their Ejaradini project that we need to be sensitive and open to other kinds of artistic practice (in this instance black urban gardening practice) and notions of refuge, spiritual rejuvenation and belonging than those that have been traditionally represented in JAG. It is no good continuing to look wistfully over the fence at what is perceived as a reluctant public. Moiloa and Mokgotho explored ways of inviting black urban gardeners into the heart of JAG - which seems perilously close to being a 'ruin'- bringing with them the feeling of tranquillity and renewal unique to gardens. It was unfortunate that Khwezi Gule, newly appointed curator-in-chief of JAG was unable to present his paper intriguingly titled, 'Heritage as a Foil for Social and Racial Justice', which judging from the abstract deals with some of the problems of 'rehabilitating' old apartheid memorials, as well as the 'suppression of localised knowledge' by heritage professionals who are very often the 'beneficiaries of colonialism' themselves.

Technology and Images

Every single one of the participants in the 'Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins' colloquium made use of slide presentations in one or other of the dedicated software formats and most of the images were superbly reproduced and projected. Needless to say this technology was unavailable in 1992. The height of technological sophistication then was the Caramate. Shortly before her own presentation at the 'Falling Monuments' colloquium the present author suffered a mildly traumatic flashback of her slides whizzing past in back-to-front order without having had any intention of questioning conventional understandings of temporality.

Computer-generated slides assisted even those presenters who were talking about the absence of monuments. Goolam Vahed brought a combination of intensive research and vivid imagery together to show how political manoeuvring as well as misgivings in the wake of recent attacks on statues of Gandhi have so far prevented the erection of a planned statue to commemorate the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa in 1860. In his own paper, Hilton Judin showed photographs of the desolate spaces of the old Pass Office in Albert Street in central Johannesburg, which captured the meaning of the 'banality of evil', coupled with the voice of Mtutuzeli Matshoba, author of Call me not a Man, who had known its cruelties and humiliations at first hand.

Similarly, Sally Gaule's images for her paper on John Vorster Square, the police station in Johannesburg notorious for the torture and murder of political detainees in the apartheid era, imparted the sense of a faded bureaucratic modernism that at once belied and collaborated with its sinister functions. One of Gaule's arguments was that the very outward blandness of the building meant that even famous photographer David Goldblatt had mostly neglected it in his portraits of apartheid South Africa. The large bound rock sitting on a plinth in front of the building, its plaque long gone, bears witness to probably the only brick and mortar attempt to memorialise it. The rock was part of the Sunday Times centenary heritage project of 2006.

Another of the organisers told the present author an anecdote that concerned a former political detainee being aghast at his colleagues' casual suggestion that they have a meal at one of the trendy restaurants now established in the shadow of the building that has been renamed with chilling neutrality the Johannesburg Central Police Station. Obviously they had no idea of its history and he had had to excuse himself from the dinner.

Brenton Maart was also able to rely on contemporary technology to project his magnificent photographs of ruined buildings in the old Bantustans, through which he clinched his argument that the best monuments are sometimes 'inadvertent' ones.

Chilling Neutrality

In concluding these brief remarks it seems important to reiterate one of the points made in particular – it concerns what Gule terms the 'rehabilitation' of old apartheid memorials, what has been referred to above as 'chilling neutrality' and the 'trope' of reconciliation. Survivors of the 1992 conference have not forgotten the violence of the early '90s and the very real fear in the year after the conference that civil war would break out in the aftermath of the murder of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party, which was carried out as part of a right-wing plot to scupper the political negotiations. For this reason 1992 survivors may be wary of abrogating the idea of reconciliation. But perhaps the trope of reconciliation is another matter. 'Trope' has connotations of a rhetorical device and therefore of something potentially deceptive. This is a matter for more careful investigation. However the trope of reconciliation does seem to have extended a moratorium to monuments that ought to fall or at least to be critically re-examined or, as Judin said, 'brought to justice'.

As it is, monuments like the archetypal case of the Voortrekker Monument live on protected by a concept of culture that actually comes from deep within apartheid ideology. Since the 1992 conference some important work has been undertaken, showing African societies as dynamic rather than static and bound to unchanging cultures, as well as having been actively concerned with representations of the past long before Europeans set foot on African soil. There is also new work with impressive results that reunites material artefacts 'marooned' in museums of natural history and art galleries with their documented histories and biographies (Hamilton and Leibhammer 2016). But the more general idea of 'culture' as something that every so-called community has a right to and has need of to flesh out its identity seems to have been paid less attention. In an article reflecting both on what the 1992 conference represented and the steps Museum Africa had been taking to distance itself from its predecessor, Hamilton did argue for the appreciation of culture as an instrument for political mobilisation (Hamilton 1994). Yet, certainly in government circles and very often in the professional heritage sector the idea of 'culture' as innocent of political intention has been allowed to flourish. Thus, the Voortrekker Monument, to take a stark example is welcomed into the heritage family of the new nation as representative of 'Afrikaner culture' instead of being interrogated for its role in supporting the government that visualised and implemented apartheid.

The intention of the 'Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins' colloquium was to bring architects, visual artists and social scientists, including historians into a common conversation. An excellent beginning was made and the organisers are evidently looking for ideas about how to take it further. What questions and analytical concepts need to be addressed in more depth? What are the 'tropes' signifying malignant intellectual residue, which need to be thoroughly examined and sent on their way?  


'Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins: Colloquium on the Persistence of the Past in the Architecture and Infrastructure of Colonialism and Apartheid' was hosted by the History Workshop and the Wits School of Architecture and Planning, supported by IFAS Recherche, the Goethe Institut and JAG, held at Wits University, 23-24 November 2018. It was dedicated to the memory of one of the History Workshop's founders, Philip Bonner, who passed away in September last year. This is necessarily a brief report on the colloquium that unfortunately excludes many of the excellent papers that were presented.

Quoted in 'Voortrekker Monument now a national heritage site', SAnews. South African Government News Agency, 16 March 2012,, accessed 28 November 2018.

Dan O'Meara's Volkskapitalisme: Class, Capital and Ideology in the development of Afrikaner Nationalism, 1934-1948. 1983. Cambridge University African Studies Series No. 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) was particularly influential.

L. Thompson. 1985. The Political Mythology of Apartheid (New Haven: Yale University Press).

C. Hamilton. 1994. 'Against the Museum as Chameleon' in South African Historical Journal 31, 184-190.

M. Moiloa and N. Mokgotho (MADEYOULOOK). 2018. 'Ejaradini: Reflections on black urban gardening practices as a model for the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

C. Kros. 2018. 'Facing (down) the colonizer? The Mandela statue on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall.

Goolam Vahed. 2018. 'Commemorating Indian Indentured Labour: Public statuary, reparations and labour routes.'

H. Judin. 2018. 'Material Damage: 80 Albert Street and the heritage of destruction.'

Sally Gaule's paper (2018) was titled,' Post-Apartheid Shadows'.

Brenton Maart (2018). 'The development of a novel category of monument, termed the inadvertent monument, as evidenced in selected apartheid buildings in previous South African apartheid native reserves.'

C. Hamilton and N. Leibhammer. Tribing and Untribing the Archive (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).

Hamilton. 'Against the Museum as Chameleon'.

It is also a pity that Ali Khangela Hlongwane was unable to present his paper, 'Credo Mutwa and the West Rand Administration Board's Cultural Village Kwa-Khaya Lendaba, and the mythological sculptures in Soweto: Invisible monument or ruins as chameleons.' Hlongwane's abstract suggests that he would have argued both for the inclusion of the unsavoury political background of the cultural village and for a consideration of how Credo Mutwa's work somehow disrupts the 'political imagination' of the West Rand Administration Board (an arm of the apartheid government).