- Commemorating and Forgetting: challenges for the new South Africa by Martin Murray
In Commemorating and Forgetting Martin Murray sets out to explore how South Africa’s painful and divided past should be incorporated into the post-apartheid nation-building project. This topic is one that remains prescient, not least with (at the time of writing this review) the ailing health of Nelson Mandela, an icon of unity in the post-apartheid nation imagination. In particular, Murray focuses upon the production and contestation of memory carriers – embodied through various forms of monument and text – that contribute to remembering the past while representing an imagined future. At the crux of Murray’s concern is how these practices are enacted to resolve the tensions between memory and amnesia, and how these contribute to the nation-building project.
The text progresses through an initial outline of the role of memory and amnesia in post-apartheid imaginaries to a more detailed consideration of the importance of collective memory as part of nation-building and the construction and maintenance of imagined communities. From this conceptual background, Murray turns to consider how a particular version of history was constructed and inscribed as part of apartheid mythology and nationhood before turning to consider how these practises were challenged and contested in the transition to democracy and a post-apartheid nation-building project. Particular attention is then paid in individual chapters to four forms of memorialisation (memory in place, haunted heritage, makeshift memorials, and textual memories) before a closing reflection on history and [End Page 103] heritage. Each of the memorialisation chapters draws upon a small number of case studies to develop key concerns – for instance the importance of memory in place is discussed in relation to the Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park, and the Hector Pietersen Memorial – and links theoretical concerns to concrete examples in order to mobilise his argument.
While the scope of the book is commendable, encompassing apartheid and post-apartheid periods as well as a range of monuments and landscapes – this is perhaps also a key weakness of the text. By engaging with such a breadth of materials, Murray is limited in terms of the depth of analysis and engagement presented. Layered on to this challenge is a sense at times of repetition and circularity of content and focus in the structure of the book.
For instance, the inclusion of the chapter on apartheid-era memorialisation practices is a useful addition and provides a limited set of reflections on practices whereby white (particularly Afrikaner) nationhood was embedded in narratives of statehood. However, the narrative within this chapter is rather disjointed and would have benefited from much greater depth and detail. This is a concern with many of the later chapters, where detailed engagement with the examples provided would provide greater insight into the intended and actual outcomes of the memorials and monuments. While Murray’s analysis is often interesting and insightful, I would suggest that a deeper engagement with the politics and iconography of nation-building and citizen-formation would provide for further reflection. For instance, the contention that the Voortrekker Monument is now viewed as a tourist attraction and therefore outside of contested histories and negotiations of nationhood would be rendered problematic by a more considered engagement with identity, race, nationhood and transformational politics. Elsewhere, further reflections upon the contested claiming of struggle heritage as political capital would also provide a more nuanced set of reflections not only on who creates messages through memory, for which audiences, with what meaning, but also on who receives these messages, how they understand them and what meanings they, in turn, develop from these.
To this end, a smaller range of monuments and forms of memorials being considered may also have been appropriate. The inclusion of textual memories is an interesting chapter but could perhaps have been sacrificed for greater depth and detail in engaging with the physical and symbolic landscapes of memorialisation discussed in the preceding chapters. Similarly the range of makeshift memorials addressed in Chapter Six leaves little space for analysis and reflection. For instance...