Reading a Post-Apartheid Memorial

 
Photo by April Killingsworth

Duane Jethro Sunday 8 August, 2010: I am on an expedition to find an elusive Sunday Times memorial in Soweto, Johannesburg. On the way, I drive through Vilakazi Street, passing by Nelson Mandela’s former home. It has been transformed into a museum. The precinct surrounding his former domicile is teeming with tourists and a host of locals plying a range of different commercial strategies aimed at cashing in on the spoils of the heritage venture. Further along the way, I pass the monumental Hector Pieterson Memorial and Media Centre, another heritage project erected during the post-apartheid era dedicated to the memory of the first student to have died in the 1976 student uprisings. Soweto seems to be brimming with new, rich heritage ventures mapping the formerly hidden histories of its former residents. The memorial I am in search of is not very different, having been dedicated to another forgotten memorable moment in time.

I perform a radical driving manoeuvre having suddenly spotted the artwork. The wheels churn up a cloud of dust as I swerve into the open plot of ground opposite Morris Isaacson High School in Jabulani section. While the Hector Pieterson Memorial may have served to commemorate the many students who fell either dead or injured in the Soweto uprising, the Sunday Times memorial erected on this barren public space marks the spot where the uprising first began. The Sunday Times Heritage Project website vividly describes the pivotal moment: “At 8am on June 16, 1976 Tsietsi Mashinini interrupted the school assembly to lead the first group of students out of the gates and on the march that started the Soweto uprising.” Designed by Johannes Phokela, the memorial is moulded in the form of an open notebook facing the gates of the school from where the first flood of students poured forth in protest against the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction. The tiled mosaic on the front of the memorial maps the route the students took through the township, and is overlaid with images of children in defiant protest, and includes the slogans and exclamations of defiance passionately exclaimed on the day. The memorial therefore serves as a powerful commemoration of the values and ideology of the 1976 youth, and their resistance against the school as an institution of domination, degradation and discrimination.

Photo by April Killingsworth

The signature ceramic plaque is not immediately visible. I step around the memorial to inspect the rear. A grey, oval shaped scar in the jet black surface of the ‘book’s’ outside cover indicates the plaque has long since been violently pried off. This is but one sign of the memorial’s reception by what can only be assumed to be youths who took the time to not only remove the plaque, but also adorn the dark rear surface with their feelings about youth-life and school going in post-apartheid South Africa using luminous yellow spray paint.

The wild graphitti sprayed across the back of the memorial immediately addresses my fundamental research interests, with the redactor tacitly exclaiming the memorial’s success, through the avowal of the contemporary youths’ solidarity with the values of their peers through the use of the plain but powerful phrase “school is bullshit!” Amongst the host of statements making up this complex, seditious mural, bodies feature as a prominent subject of fascination. The profane title of the book, neatly printed down the centrefold, for example, highlights the most urgent corporeal desires of contemporary male youths. While the exclamation point completing the defiant phrase, “Kiss my black ass!” on the right hand panel speaks to a fascination with tactility and the skin through its implicit contemplation of intimate oral contact with a racialized body. Whatever sentiments the memorial’s creators may have wished their work would convey, this cluster of bold exclamations, which ever way you read it, ultimately highlights the fickle, mysterious attitude of the viewing public.

Duane Jethro

Duane Jethro is a PhD Student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of VU University Amsterdam. His research focuses on post-apartheid cultural heritage initiatives and takes place as part of the NWO project Heritage Dynamics. He is currently conducting fieldwork in South Africa and wrote a number of reports about the World Cup for Standplaats Wereld.

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