Honour, identity and the public archive in democratic South Africa

Honour, identity and the public archive in democratic South Africa

In 2011, the South African Department of Arts and Culture announced its decision to organise the Heritage Month under a theme “Liberation heritage in honour of heroes and heroines of the liberation struggle”. Explaining the theme, the Minister said, “We will remember heroes and heroines of our people by erecting monuments in their honour”. Mashatile presented as part of the rationale for the monumentalisation project the objective of combating the antics of “those who seek to rewrite and distort our history”, those seeking to “wish away the existence of the liberation struggle” (Maluleke: 2011).

A careful reading of the Minister’s pronunciations would show that the ‘liberation heritage’ in SA has come to be an affair of the exercise of honour, identity, and public archiving. It has come to be associated with symbolism- one characterized by a dishonoring of the politically irrelevant other and honoring of the heroic political one. To some of us, the images it conjures in our minds are those of Mandela, monuments, statues, and gigantic tombstones of ANC comrades.

To be sure, the current government’s elevation of the ‘liberation heritage’ idea reveals an intent or willingness by those in power to institutionalize what I call ‘phenomenology[1] of monumentisation’.

Why is the ANC government trying to ‘legislate’ and ‘manage’ the medium(s) through which we think about, remember and act on our past/lived individual or collective experiences? Since the dominant narratives that are remembered and archived, people honored, are mainly those that ‘belong’ to the ruling party, are other events, stories, and people not worth remembering? In fact, Maluleke (2011) eloquently asks some of the pressing questions I have in mind, ‘’why are we attempting to limit the notion of liberation heroism only to the known, the obvious and the conventional? Why do we reduce the history of struggle to a “beauty contest” of individual heroes and heroines nicely slotted into the narrowest of party political boxes?’’

I argue that, it is in the juxtaposition of honor and identity that we can understand answers, whatever they may be, to some of those questions.

Admittedly, the ANC conceptualized the noble idea of a liberation struggle for a free non-racial and non-sexiest South Africa. And alongside other liberation movements and formations it engaged in a prolonged period of operationalizing it.  So since the liberation struggle was itself accepted and predicated on the well being of all South Africans; recognizing and honoring those who assiduously fought for it becomes a necessity.

Nonetheless, the ANC government’s idea of liberation heritage and its associated honor code and practices has become an exclusive affair. The problem is, though the honor code is publicly known (we know that all those who not only fought but were also involved in one way or another in supporting the liberation struggle ought to be remembered and honored regardless of political affiliation), the bestowing honor code isn’t.

The honor of the liberation heroes and heroines is intimately liked in many ways with those aspects of their identity that derive from membership in a political party (see Appiah: 2012). The most powerful party, the ruling party, supplies the greatest numbers of liberation heroes and as a result liberation and struggle heroism are reduced to individuals — thus giving rise to the cult of individual struggle heroes (Maluleke: 2011).

Appiah rightfully observes, “we may both gain and lose honor through the successes and failures of those with whom we share an identity”.  An example is Jeff Masemola, a member of the PAC and the longest serving political prisoner on Robben Island (28 full years) above Mandela’s 27 years. Masemola has not been given the recognition and honor he deserves. His political identity, that of being a member of the ‘not so relevant’ political party (PAC) after 1994 cost him recognition and honor.

Stories of some of our liberation heroes like Masemola shows us that reconfiguration and monumentisation of the past and the archives out of which that past is produced, are always a matter of present day choices, conditions, decisions, exercises of power and acts of resistance (Mangcu: 2011).  In an essay, entitled “Evidentiary Genocide: Intersections of Race, Power and the Archive” Mangcu demonstrates how ‘repackaging’ of a public archive can take on an oppressive form by privileging the histories and narratives of certain identities over others, demonstrating how the ANC appropriated the language of the Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist movements, while vilifying or not recognizing in a satisfactory manner the role these movements played in the liberation struggle and heritage thereof.

Today, structural conditions and balance of forces are in favor of the ANC and as victors, the ANC is conforming, expectedly so, to the maxim that victors write or re-write history. As the party and its government are reconstructing our past and re-writing our national history, they are choosing and promoting versions of events, memories and facts that count as theirs

Their exclusive honor practices, alas, will deprive South Africans an opportunity to take pride and share in their nation’s honor and the honor of their fallen liberation heroes and heroines.  The party has an opportunity and must use it to re-write South Africa’s national history and re-package our public archive in a manner that is as inclusive and satisfactory as possible.


Apphia Kwame Anthony. 2010. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. W. W. Norton & Company, New York

Mangcu Xolela (ed). 2011. Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Public Deliberation and Identity in South Africa. Wits University Press, Johannesburg

Percy Zvomuya. Sobukhwe: A Picture of an Icon. Mail and Guardian, 16 March 2012, Johannesburg

Rapule Tabane. Spare a thought, and a place name, for Mangaliso Sobukwe. Mail and Guardian, 09 March 2012, Johannesburg

Tinyiko Maluleke. Liberating ourselves from unhelpful notions of struggle heroism. Mail and Guardian, September 19, 2011

[1] I use the term phenomenology of monumentisation to casually describe and/or characterize concerted  attempts aimed at ‘legislating’ and ‘managing’ the medium(s) through which we think about, remember and act on our past/lived individual or collective  experiences (ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination and emotion). Note that phenomenology is not used stricto sensu here (in its strict philosophical sense, refering to a disciplinary field in philosophy or as a movement in the history of philosophy)

Thembani Mbadlanyana

Thembani Mbadlanyana is a Researcher in the Corruption and Governance Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

3 Responses to Honour, identity and the public archive in democratic South Africa

  1. Great piece Thembani. The SABC recently screened a number of documentaries that appear to challenge the ANC’s monumentalisation of South African history. One of these for instance was a two part (two hour) feature on Robert Sobukwe, which featured various intellectuals including the likes of Cornel West, and the overaching theme from both the documentary and social media commentary was that, in the same tone as your article, the honouring of SA’s struggle heroes/sheroes has been extremely biased towards honouring very selectively a few Top niche ANC cadre’s ignoring the contributions of others.

    my “theory” really is that perhaps the ANC selectively honours these leaders because they contribute towards the utopian idea that the ANC single handedly overhauled apartheid, and hence if they should giver wider recognition to other parties/movements like the PAC/Black Consciousness movement/ the international civil society etc, then necessarily (in time) they would decline in popularity with the ‘masses’… I’ve read countless pieces on the ANC and the masses and the common theme being that many people vote for the ANC because of the struggle narrative that its sold to them, and hence a lot of people feel indebted to stay loyal to it because of the freedom that its brought. So politically, as a strategy, it would NOT be in the ANC’s strategy to recognize the others? Its crude but would it not be political suicide if they did honour other non-ANC key anti-apartheid/colonialism players? Hope that makes sense? Any thoughts?

  2. In fact I would argue to the contrary. Honoring others who equally contributed to the struggle would not harm ANC but would rather guarantees it a popular support due to the fairness that would be attached to that symbolic act. So fairness inherent in that inclusive honoring exercise would come to ‘legitimise’ its actions.I dont think it would be a political suicide at all. Instead of leading to its demise, it would build its stock of ‘political capital’ and would contribute to wider acceptance of the party. Very few would have anything to say against ANC or to critique it.

    But now, its exclusive honoring practices has exposed the party to much criticism. More so, perception matters in politics.so the growing perception that ANC is hijacking our liberation heritage and is claiming monopoly over it, might not augur well with the politically informed voting population-who might use voting to punish the party.

  3. thank you for this nuanced piece Thembani. As we are nearing South Africa’s 20th anniversary of democratic transition, i fear that it will become more and more difficult to revisit the mooted discussion about people like Jeff Masemola who are absent from the public’s imagination. Gcobani has mentioned the work done in problematising this notion through documentaries. I wonder, which South African intellectuals are leading this discussion of democratising the public archive that one might look for to get better knowledge on this subject?

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