ASHRAF ADAM | How we handle heritage, oppression and freedom

PREMIUM

Robben Island has, for centuries, been a prison for those who opposed colonial conquest and its incarnations, settler colonialism and apartheid.
Yet, when it was converted to a museum the logo which former prisoners chose was one of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit.
In contrast, the Red Location Museum in New Brighton township, which was built after freedom was attained, is surrounded by a community riddled with unemployment and poverty, and to many this museum is a constant reminder of their oppression.
At the harbour, next to the beautiful but decaying Port Elizabeth station building, stands the Campanile.
This tower, completed in 1922 to honour the arrival of the settlers, was refurbished by the MBDA in 2017.
Since it is not possible in post-apartheid SA to justify expenditure to glorify colonialism, some attempt was made during the refurbishment to be historically inclusive.
The resulting Campanile Frieze stands in feeble rather than in historical juxtaposition to the majestic symbol of oppression.
An historiographic approach to the refurbishment would have located the Campanile within the histories of the time with similar grandeur.
An opportunity to recognise and celebrate the resistance was missed.
The time of its construction coincided with a seminal moment in the organised black industrial labour movement, an example of which was the dockworkers strike which occurred where the Campanile stands.
In the St George’s Park stadium stands a tennis court and spectator stand whose demolition is opposed by some because it apparently has some relevance to the descendants of the settlers.
The tennis court is a car park and the stand is, well, nothing but an obstacle to the redevelopment of the stadium.
It appears the management of the stadium is reticent to open that discussion again for fear of raising the ire of some people.
Yet in South End, everyone involved in designing, approving and constructing the new multi-storied Algoa FM building was insensitive to its impact on the adjacent Hindu temple, which is said to be the second oldest in South Africa.
Besides, the ownership of the land on which the new structure stands is the result of dispossession.
Ahistorical disregard of the sordid impact of the Group Areas Act is as crass as telling black people to get over apartheid.
In the Port Elizabeth CBD and adjacent suburb of Central, mostly those colonial-era buildings owned by the municipality are in some state of repair.
It is not clear why other buildings are being allowed to decay, in contravention of both the National Building Regulations and the National Heritage Act.
That the owner of heritage properties is allowed to defiantly let them rot and then alter them at will beggars belief.
Perhaps The Herald would want a word with its landlord since it, too, is a product of colonialism while striving to be relevant in a democratic society.
The grounds at Nuremberg, Germany appear to be left in a state of deliberate neglect.
In contrast, the museum which deals with what went on at Nuremberg is instructive and forward looking.
Goree Island in Senegal is maintained as a reminder of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the attempted destruction of the human spirit, as if to say, “it happened, it was bad, but we survived”.
Some argue that Nelson Mandela abandoned his principles by attaching his name to the Rhodes Trust, a bequest of the racist and grand imperialist Cecil John Rhodes.
In 2018, protests in Ghana led to the removal of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
Similar efforts were under way in Malawi.
The name Mahatma is an epithet meaning “great soul”, but now some consider him to have been a racist for his attitudes towards black people and a colonial sympathiser for his role as a stretcher bearer for the British during one of the Anglo-Boer wars.
Yet, the seminal roles played by both leaders in leading their respective countries to secular freedom is undeniable.
History is not neutral and historiography can be brutal.
It is easy and sometimes comforting to embrace only one’s own heritage and to be visceral in the disregard of someone else’s.
The past is contested terrain precisely because it is experienced differently.
With better appreciation and evolution of histories, there should also be a willingness to change long-held beliefs.
Thus, there is no reason why the physical structures which represent oppression cannot be repurposed to celebrate freedom and imagining a common future.
The SA parliamentary precinct is a sterling example of this.
The MBDA, on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, plans to erect an iconic landmark to honour Mandela.
As this project gets under way and as Port Elizabeth heads towards 200 years since the arrival of the settlers, it is worth engaging on the matter of heritage and what it means to be South African so that future generations critique our actions, not our inaction.

Ashraf Adam is the MBDA chief executive..

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