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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 67-89

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The Making and Unmaking of History in Ivan Vladislavic's Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories

Christopher Warnes

I. Public Spheres

When Thabo Mbeki was officially inaugurated as South Africa's second democratically elected President, a gala event was held to celebrate the consolidation of a democracy born five years earlier. The retirement of an iconic statesman, Nelson Mandela, and the anointing of his chosen successor, validated by almost two-thirds of South Africans in a peaceful election, drew leaders from 120 countries to South Africa. The date of the inauguration, 16 June 1999, had been carefully chosen to commemorate the Soweto uprisings, in which more than 700 black schoolchildren died protesting apartheid education exactly 23 years earlier. The day is now a public holiday in South Africa--Youth Day--and after the solemnities of the inauguration 100,000 South Africans gathered on the rolling lawns of the Union Buildings to gyrate to the latest kwaito--the distinctive, hybridized music of South African townships--in celebration of a new president.

In one sense, the inauguration can be seen as an apogee in the quest for democratic ideals in South Africa. The compound damage of a blood-soaked past appeared to have been vanquished by the triumph of democratic justice. Moreover, the departure of Mandela was proving to be a cause of celebration rather than an occasion for despair, demonstrating the vitality of the country's newly democratic institutions. Against [End Page 67] the backdrop of the Union Buildings, Herbert Baker's sweeping monument to the 1910 union that created a nation, 1 it appeared that South Africa had finally transcended its racially divisive past and earned the popular epithet "New."

Also attending the inauguration were, however, two uninvited guests. On the city side of the lawns, statues of Louis Botha and Barry Hertzog--South Africa's first and third prime ministers, respectively, both of whom were instrumental in pioneering racial policies that would later evolve into apartheid--towered above the celebrations. 2 In planning the inauguration, it had been decided that these statues were to be fenced off from the revelers. The official reason for this covering was to protect the statues from harm, but opposition political parties accused the government of attempting to cover up the past. The shrouding of the monuments may have been a deliberate decision by Mbeki, whose ideal of an "African Renaissance" clearly does not include public memorials to those who had for so long kept Africans in subordination. 3 Alternatively, the statues may have been in genuine danger of being damaged by the throngs of revelers whose motivation for defacing or destroying the statues could have extended beyond mere vandalism. Either way, the covering of the memorials was a means of temporarily removing them from the public space they inhabit. Fenced off with wire and black sacking, the cameras of the media caught only the silhouettes of the statues, ghostlike in the bright highveld sunshine. 4

Neither dismantled nor openly displayed, the shrouded statues can be seen as powerful symbols of an ambivalent relationship between past and present in postapartheid South Africa. They raise the vital questions of how to acknowledge the past without being limited by it and how to negotiate the paradoxes of change. How does one signify the closure of a grand narrative like apartheid when the consequences of apartheid remain pervasive characteristics of the "New" South Africa, and when the very principle of closure has been challenged? I plan to address these and other issues through an examination of the most recently published fiction of the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic. Vladislavic's first collection of short stories, Missing Persons, was published in 1989; in 1993 he published a novel, The Folly, and in 1996 a second collection of short stories, Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories. Vladislavic's corpus of fiction thus spans the transition between apartheid and [End Page 68] postapartheid South Africa and can be fruitfully investigated in the context of the...


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