Who Owns the Struggle History?: A Dialogue
South African Heritage Day is characterised by the spending of thousands of rands on izimbizo and gatherings of all sorts. Crowds assemble in stadiums at which politicians deliver speeches, followed by performing artists and lavish food menus. While some wear their elaborate traditional attire, others gear up in their respective political party’s t-shirts. There are also thousands who have adopted the braai custom which is shared amongst family and friends. To celebrate the heritage month, the Mail and Guardian in collaboration with the National Heritage Council (NHC) held a forum on 18 September at Lilliesleaf, Rivonia meant to interrogate the question ‘who owns the struggle history in South Africa?’
An answer to this question would raise contested and prolonged arguments among politicians, academics and the South African society at large. Nonetheless, the forum offered an insight to debates regarding history, heritage, memory and hegemony. Present in the panel were representatives from the NHC, Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), New Frank Talk (NFT) and the African National Congress (ANC).
In response to the forum’s question, the representative of AZAPO voiced his concerns when he said: ‘Today you have people who are in Parliament who at the time, in the University of the North, were so scared of being involved in the struggle….Take Mathew for instance…and I am sitting here today, not benefiting like him. He is today in government’
The PAC representative shared the same sentiment as he maintained that: ‘Eh, the PAC led the nation. It opened the eyes of the people that there is apartheid in South Africa. But it is unfortunate today that when you talk about the struggle and you talk about the PAC people will never understand.’
Although both the representative of AZAPO and of the PAC were hesitant to overtly state that they own the struggle, they were certain that presently the ruling party dominates the liberation struggle discourse. A significant dimension of the debate was that some of the ANC government officials perverted the claims of who was part of the struggle, what the struggle was for and who benefited and continues to benefit since the inception of democracy in South Africa. This created a complex set of potentially conflicting ideas about South Africa’s colonial history, the struggle, freedom and post-colonial entitlements. The debate illuminated that the struggle history is a source of political power in itself, as political activists or ‘heroes’ are rewarded with the grand prize of commemoration, material gains and authority. Struggle activists in particular, have a stake in being recognised as legitimate participants in history in their own right. As a result, in other instances the tales of the past are distorted depending on who the audience is and the reward that results from the claims.
Addressing the subject of entitlement and material gain in the post-colonial and post-apartheid era, the NFT representative maintained his argument of the night when he stated: ‘The ANC’s post apartheid project is a betrayal of legendary activists such as Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe, who have fought for South Africa.’ He then suggested the inclusion of the PAC and AZAPO as component structures of the ANC to end the exclusionist argument put forward by most organisations in public discourse. In elaboration of his argument he stated: ‘The reason AZAPO, PAC and others are saying the ANC is excluding us, is because you agree with the ANC project, you don’t see the ANC as a problem. You don’t have any desire to start history afresh.’ In essence his rationale was that the majority of opposition parties and political organisations in South Africa do not desire to fundamentally transform the ideas of the ruling party, but instead would like to be incorporated in the status quo.
In response to who owns the struggle debate, the ANC representative maintained that ‘we respect those who have contributed to the struggle, we consult with communities when dealing with major projects such as name changes… members of ANC played a major role in the liberation struggle and thus they are the ruling party’.
The contribution of political organisations such as the ANC, PAC and AZAPO should not be overlooked. The role of these organisations informed the masses about the dire conditions in which majority lived in. The ideas of these political organisations served as a platform for the oppressed South Africans to begin to think about ways in which the colonial and apartheid administrations could be challenged. Even so, the forum illuminated the need to engage with the struggle history beyond the formation of AZAPO in 1978, the PAC in 1959 and the ANC in 1912.
South Africa has a history beyond Jan van Riebeeck’s 1652, the Anglo Boer war of 1899-1900 and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Organisations such as the Union of Native Vigilance Association (1887), the South African Native Congress (1890’s), the Natal Native Congress, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa (1921), illustrate the politically conscious lay men and women who were determined to overthrow the colonial regime. The existence of these political organisations directly or indirectly paved way for the formation of struggle organisations in the 20th century South Africa. This forum also presented the need to think beyond the discourse about struggle heroes. A deeper exploration of history illuminates men such as Tiyo Soga in 1860’s, who already demonstrated an Africanist outlook before the birth of Steve Biko and the PAC. An examination of the struggle history in South Africa beyond 1912, demonstrates that this contribution of history cannot be narrowed to certain political organisations or individuals.
Arguably, lay men and women own the struggle history in South Africa, for it is they who joined organisations to better articulate their grievances in numbers. Yet again, the men and women who joined political organisations are not different from the ones who simply fought for bread and butter issues in their small communities. An understanding that lay men and women own the struggle suggests that all South African citizens are, therefore, entitled to the political, economic and social gains provided by the democratic dispensation.
In conclusion, the NHC representative was correct in that such a platform should serve as an apparatus that contributes to and strengthens democracy. Nonetheless, the NHC and the Mail and Guardian may have to re-think how such a forum can be extended to the masses who are often not engaged in these kinds of dialogues. The forum was not reflective of the diverse society South Africa is. Lastly, it appeared from the dialogue there is a need to reflect on improved ways to converse in a manner that does not leave individuals feeling excluded or not empowered to articulate their concerns. The use of language such as ‘these white people’ or ‘these black people’ seems to check the project of inclusion and tolerance.
Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Johannesburg