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  • Gestures of compensation:post-partheid monuments and memorials
  • Sabine Marschall (bio)


With the advent of the post-apartheid era, the heritage sector has been flourishing in South Africa; new museums have been built, new heritage sites, commemorative monuments, memorials, statues and busts have been set up throughout the country. Not everyone agrees that there is a need for such commemorative endeavour, especially in view of the country's staggering levels of poverty and scarce resources. Some even suggest that there should be a moratorium on the establishment of any new monuments and memorials (eg Maré 2002). My intention is neither to justify nor to criticise the current monumental drive, but rather to help understand it.

Drawing on Human Needs theory, this article will firstly consider such sites as symbolic gestures that fulfil basic emotional human needs.1 Moving from needs to interests, I will present new monuments and heritage sites as gestures of compensation. This applies on two levels: first, the declaration of a site as a heritage site and erection of a monument are intended as a symbolic reparation to victims and their descendents, often compensating for the lack of 'real' reparations (ie monetary payments). Secondly, as with all forms of heritage, the establishment of monuments contributes to the construction of a 'desired past' and foregrounding of specific memories, as a means of compensating for potential shortcomings and errors that taint the 'real past'.

Monuments as fulfilling core human needs

Most post-apartheid monuments can be considered cultural symbols that respond to a situation of conflict (resistance against colonial oppression, the anti-apartheid struggle, etc). These conflicts might be historically concluded, but their legacy continues to impact on present society both in [End Page 78] material terms and in terms of identity and consciousness. In fact, the memory of these conflicts - although painful - might be harnessed precisely to foster the creation of a particular historical consciousness and pass it on to the next generation. This is one of the implicit purposes of any monument. Although carrying the danger of nurturing bitterness and inciting hatred, in post-apartheid South Africa monuments are, on the contrary, meant to facilitate reconciliation.2 This rationale implicitly acknowledges that the desired reconciliation has not yet been achieved. In other words, prejudice, resentment, even hatred, are still dividing people as a result of a deep-seated conflict that - in some people's minds - has not ended but simply shifted to another level.3

It is useful in this context to take a closer look at some concepts of, and theoretical approaches to, conflict resolution and reconciliation. Mark Ross's research into the role that culture - eg psycho-cultural narratives, cultural symbols (such as monuments), and ritual actions - play in situations of conflict (for instance in Israel, Northern Ireland, or Sri Lanka) is highly pertinent in this regard (Ross 2000; 2002; 2004). Cultural symbols and their associated narratives can escalate, but also de-escalate, situations of conflict. This applies particularly to what John Burton has called 'deep-rooted' conflicts, ie conflicts between 'identity groups' (national, ethnic, racial, etc) over matters of sovereignty, dignity, autonomy, group security and cultural survival (Avruch 2000:86). As opposed to conflicts over scarce resources or material interests, which can be resolved through a process of negotiation and power bargaining, these conflicts are more difficult to resolve and require an engagement with their root causes, for instance through problem-solving workshops. It could be argued that the racial divide in South Africa is an example of such a deep-rooted conflict.

Burton's approach to conflict resolution is based on what has become known as Human Needs theory, of which he is the key proponent (Burton 1987; 1990). Human Needs theorists hold that there is a set of basic human needs that is universal, common to all people across time and space, and grounded in human nature. Due to their ontological status, human needs, unlike interests, are non-negotiable and unalterable; their satisfaction is imperative (Avruch 2000). Many conflicts are the result of the continued frustration or non-satisfaction of core human needs, and the denial of basic, inalienable values. Lack of freedom, injustice and inequality, for instance, can be said...


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