What does SA’s struggle heritage mean after 30 years of democracy?

In Johannesburg’s Sandton City shopping centre, Nelson Mandela’s larger-than-life statue stands as a beacon of post-apartheid freedom. Yet, amidst the luxury retail backdrop, it raises poignant questions. The statue, adorned with polished bronze shoes from the touch of countless passersby, embodies a paradox: the celebration of freedom intertwined with consumerism. As South Africa marks 30 years of democracy, it prompts reflection on the true essence of liberation, challenging us to reconcile the past’s struggles with today’s commercialized commemoration.

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By Duane Jethro*

One of my favourite statues is the one of Nelson Mandela at the Sandton City shopping centre in Johannesburg. Larger than life, its oversized bronze shoes shimmer in the evening light, polished by the hands of many passersby who crowd around to take pictures with it. At the entrance of a square in the mall, it’s a jovial image of the former South African president in a lively jive: a decidedly odd juxtaposition of a liberation fighter at a site of luxury retail.

One message it seems to convey is the celebration of the commercial riches brought about by post-apartheid freedom. The statue invites us to consider the uncomfortable ambiguity of an armed political struggle for freedom with luxury consumption. And to consider what exactly South Africans are buying into with struggle heritage commemoration after 30 years of democracy.

It especially challenges the country to think about what freedom really means today. Freedom Day on 27 April recognises the full political agency of all South Africans, commemorating not only the first democratic elections in 1994, but also the freedom to vote.

Apartheid was a racist system of political and spatial exclusion and dehumanisation that was resisted by political and popular social movements. It is referred to as the struggle for freedom, or simply “the struggle”. It ushered in political freedom but also associated liberties such as freedom of expression, information and property ownership. On paper, these are to be celebrated. But in practice they can clash in awkward ways, especially when it comes to thinking about what appropriate ways of commemorating struggle history are relative to what it means to be free.

As a scholar of heritage and contested public cultures, I am intrigued by the complicated links between cultural heritage and capitalist exchange. It seems that, after 30 years of democracy, the struggle heritage in South Africa has ever more been recruited to conceal the gap between the reality of an economically unequal and unjust present rather than serve as a critical reminder about the freedoms and equality aspired for during the apartheid past.

An auction

One example we can look at is the ongoing debacle of a proposed auction of Mandela’s personal effects. It reveals a clash of the values of the struggle for democracy, the authority of the state and the freedom to express individual agency.

Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe Mandela has successfully argued in court that the objects belonged to the family, who are free to dispose of the collection as they wish. The state has, at great cost, consistently failed to persuade judges that items such as Mandela’s identity document, shoes, and hearing aid are of national heritage significance. The state’s persistence shows a narrow, conservative concept of heritage value and its assumed authority over all of it.

The irony of struggle heritage, in this case, as the dancing Mandela statue may well signify, is that heritage is negotiated and not fixed. In a democratic dispensation heritage is that which is negotiated in disputes between individuals who enjoy the freedom of property rights, the state and often the market. This type of dispute and adjudication occurs the world over – look at museum objects appropriated during colonial times, for example.

Shopping malls

But this is just one example of how commerce, culture and heritage mix in rather strange and sometimes unsettling ways in post-apartheid South Africa. These examples can sometimes challenge assumptions about the meaning of “the struggle” and what it is to be free.

For example, shopping malls are increasingly the place where many valued cultural expressions of the struggle for freedom and democracy come to rest. Take the Long March to Freedom exhibition. Conceived and initiated by Dali Tambo, a former talk show host and the son of liberation leader Oliver Tambo, it features a procession of life-sized sculptures of leading figures in South Africa’s centuries-long journey to democracy.

A long line of lifelike bronze sculptures of famous South African liberation figures, a large shopping complex in the background.
Statues of liberation figures Oliver and Adelaide Tambo in the Long March to Freedom exhibition. Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Built at enormous cost, the project toured the nation and came home to the Canal Walk shopping centre 20km outside Cape Town. At a cost of R20 per adult (excluding parking), families can now immerse themselves in history, take pictures with anti-colonial and anti-apartheid heroes and learn about the past as they wander among the lifelike statues marching in static unison outside the mall.

A line of jewellery

“Struggle history” and its material culture is ever more available for sale. And its consumption is increasingly portrayed as patriotic.

Take the Legacy Collection, a line of innovative fashion accessories. The prison on Robben Island was where Mandela and other activists were incarcerated during apartheid. Designer Charmaine Taylor uses original pieces of the Robben Island fence – the very barricade used to imprison political prisoners – to create gold and silver jewellery. The high-end pieces, which celebrate “South Africa’s peaceful road to democracy”, retail for hundreds of dollars. As the website puts it, “individuals wearing this collection physically carry the story of the triumph of the human spirit”. Wearing the jewellery is portrayed as being a commemorative act of pride.

There is something absurd, even abhorrent, about wearing jewellery made from the Robben Island fence, or visiting a statue procession at a mall. It suggests a fundamental break in the relationship between the past that is represented by such objects – one of struggle, sacrifice for justice and equality – and the racialised, deeply unequal material conditions South Africans finds themselves in today.

Strange entanglements

Recognising these strange entanglements – which exist the world over – takes us beyond the false opposition between commerce and commemoration. It flags a set of deeper contradictions that I think the Mandela statue in Sandton Square gestures at. That is: struggle heritage has increasingly been recruited to mask the discrepancy between the unsettling material inequalities and contradictions in our society that it is meant to call attention to. Political freedom was not a harbinger of economic justice and restitution for the majority.

That said, commerce and consumption are increasingly important spaces for making sense of the past. That is not a bad thing in itself. The public has the freedom and right to spend as it likes. But it is an indictment on the state’s steering of the post-apartheid political project and heritage management that the sale of the Robben Island fence is possible, for example. Thirty years after democracy South Africans should not be bickering about culture and consumption. We should be considering what political conditions we have so easily bought into at the expense of our past.

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*Duane Jethro: Lecturer Department of African Studies and Linguistics, University of Cape Town

This article was first published by The Conversation and is republished with permission