Memorial Lecture by Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa

Memorial Lecture by Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa


Memorial Lecture by Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa

CEO, National Heritage Council

18 March 2014

Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality


Progamme Director, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades and Friends, I wish to acknowledge the presence of all of you here this afternoon. On behalf of the National Heritage Council, I thank you for the invitation to deliver this memorial lecture at this auspicious occasion.

It is indeed an honour and a privilege to be here to pay tribute to our fallen heroes and heroines – especially on the eve of one of the most significant dates in the calendar of our young democracy – Human Rights Day. As you all know, the date of 21 March is not just another public holiday for the people of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. It is a day that has a particular resonance. This auspicious date is made even more important this year because, as you all know, we are celebrating 20 years of democracy.

2.The 1985 Langa Massacre and Its Memorials

The terrible events of 1985 should be familiar to us all. Uitenhage holds a special place in the history of resistance to apartheid. It was here, on the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, on 21 March 1985, that the apartheid police opened fire on innocent people protesting against an unjust system and who were on their way to a funeral. This became known as the Langa Massacre.

As events transpired, this was not to be an isolated incident. It was the first mass police killing in what turned out to be a year marked by other massacres: Queenstown, Mamelodi, Winterveld and Alexandra, as increasing resistance was met with bloody violence. The Uitenhage shootings evoked a national and international outcry, and the South African government, under pressure, appointed a judicial commission of enquiry under Judge Donald Kannemeyer to investigate the circumstances surrounding 21 March 1985.

Amongst the many questions that followed the massacre was, how many died and were wounded? The police asserted that 17 people were killed and 19 wounded. Residents in the townships maintained that police had killed as many as 43 persons. The memorial in KwaNobuhle cemetery indicated 29 were killed and listed their names. Press estimates took all of these accounts into consideration in making their assessments that ranged from 19 to 43 dead. One of the eye witness journalists, Jon Qwelane, insisted that 42 people died at Langa. It is even more difficult to discern the number of wounded, especially as many of the wounded sought to avoid hospitals for fear of police or other state reprisal.

Given that the apartheid police victimised and persecuted the wounded in and out of hospital; harassed the families of the fallen; that many people fled to avoid further persecution and that families sought to avoid retribution by the apartheid regime by coming forward to the Kannemeyer Commission; it is likely that the figure of 43 killed in the massacre is the most accurate.

A year after the Langa massacre, a memorial tombstone to those who died was unveiled in the KwaNobuhle Cemetery. Thousands of mourners, protesters, and activists gathered at a memorial service to honour those who fell in the massacre. That night hundreds gathered as a memorial stone was erected to honour the fallen victims. As workers set the stone in place, those gathered sang songs honouring Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. The memorial stone was engraved with the list of the names of the dead. The monument bore two inscriptions. Beneath the carving of the warrior and above the list of names, the inscription read:

In memory of our martyrs whose blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of the people’s total liberation, and others whose whereabouts could not be established after that brutal and merciless killing.

The other inscription, at the foot of the monument, read:

We also remember all our heroes who have fallen during the course of the struggle. Their sacrifice will not be in vain. Victory is certain.[1]

The tombstone was vandalised in June 1987. As you will recall, these were very difficult times in the townships of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, when apartheid-sponsored vigilantes were targeting comrades. It was perhaps to be expected that so important a memorial was going to be targeted for vandalism by the apartheid regime and its stooges.

In March 1994, at the dawn of our new democracy and on the eve of our first democratic elections, the memorial was re-erected. In 2000, in further recognition of the importance of this event, the Langa massacre memorial was upgraded by the municipality and provincial government. On Human Rights Day of 2000, 5000 people gathered in Maduna Road to witness the unveiling of the Langa Memorial by Comrade Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in memory of ‘our beloved sons & daughters who sacrificed their precious lives on this date for the freedom of our country.’ This Heroes Monument, dedicated in their honour, marked the spot where the police opened fire on the large crowd. Amongst the mourners who were present were parents whose children had been killed on that day and one survivor who came in his wheelchair.

In 2010, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre a more substantial memorial to those who fell in 1985 was officially opened. A joint project of the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, the event begun with a memorial lecture, given by the Premier of the Eastern Cape Noxolo Kiviet; followed by the laying of wreaths at the Kwa-Nobuhle Cemetery by the Premier, the Executive Mayor and a representative of the families that lost loved ones. After the wreath laying ceremony, proceedings moved to the R 6,8 million redeveloped Langa Memorial Park wherein a new Memorial plaque was unveiled by the Premier and the Executive Mayor. During the unveiling it was announced that, as part of victim empowerment, 24 family members of those who died in the Langa Massacre would be used as tour guides at the Memorial Park.

Addressing people gathered at the Memorial Park, the Executive Mayor at the time started by acknowledging the families who lost loved ones. He said the Memorial Park stood as a remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price so that we could all be free. He thanked the heroes and heroines who laid down their lives in pursuit of justice and freedom for all. ’Human rights Day represents a time to reflect, acknowledge and celebrate the role played by all sectors of civil society in the attainment of freedom and democracy’. ’We, however, continue to face a number of challenges such as crime, incurable diseases, poverty and unemployment, it is for this reason that we must remain vigilant and ensure that the struggles waged by these fallen heroes and heroines were not in vain, he said.[2]

This is what an academic recently had to say in praise of the impressive new Langa Massacre memorial:

The monument is conceptualised as a viewing platform with a vertical concrete slab punctuated by a circular hole through which one can look at the spot where the Langa shootings took place, thus literally framing the scene of the massacre. Here the memorial not only commemorates the dead, but it brings the event to life by encouraging visitors to imagine, to see in their minds, what happened….[3]

3.Significance of Memorials

Why did I remind you of the four memorials to the Langa Massacre? What significance do they have for us today? Why do we bother with memorials at all when there are so many other competing priorities? It is to these questions that I would now like to turn.

Memorials and statues are put up for a number of different reasons. When the comrades put up the memorial in KwaNobuhle in 1987 they were sending a very clear message to the apartheid regime. The memorial was an important part of resistance and memory – a focal and rallying point for mobilising against an evil system.

When the vandalised memorial was rededicated in 1994, it was both a defiant gesture of remembrance and an acknowledgement that, as the country prepared to go to the polls for the first time, the sacrifices of those who came before had not been forgotten nor had they been in vain.

When the memorial was upgraded in 2000 and the site of the massacre was marked, it was in recognition by the Provincial Government and Local Municipality of the importance of the event in promoting reconciliation, redressing imbalances in the portrayal of our history. It was also in line with calls made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for memorials to be put up in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice. It was part of the healing process of our Nation.

This aspect of promoting reconciliation is very important. During the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission many of those affected by apartheid violence requested memorials for their missing loved ones. It was also suggested that those who had sacrificed their lives in the Struggle be remembered through street names, the names of buildings like schools and hospitals, and towns. It pains me a great deal to see that a certain sector of the population strongly opposes attempts to change place names. During the TRC process the perpetrators of human rights abuses were forgiven, but now we see that those other aspects of the TRC process which addressed the needs of victims of apartheid are hindered. Such people who oppose place name changes and who denigrate the building of memorials need to realise that reconciliation is a two-way street.

With regards to the Langa memorials, twenty-five years later, a more dignified and substantial memorial commemorated the event. The reasoning behind this one was a little different from the 1987 memorial. The events of 1987 are no longer so immediate. As a Nation we are in danger of forgetting the struggles of those who came before. Our youth, in particular, are far removed from these sacrifices. As a Nation, our history is an important, indeed a critical, element of what informs our present and our future. As the years pass, so generations of youth move further and further away from the painful events like the Langa Massacre. These events cease to have meaning for them and no longer serve as a source of inspiration.

We are not alone as a country in facing this challenge of the loss of collective memory. In this regard we could learn a lot from our fellow Africans. Between 1995 and 2002, more than forty commemorative monuments were built in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. Their number, scale and prominence make them striking additions to the city’s built environment. These monuments were a conscious effort by the Malian people to reconceptualise their capital city away from its colonial image as a modern city and build a shared foundation for their nation:

In the context of Mali’s emerging democracy, the timing of the monument project, 1995–2002, coincides with growing diversity in the public sphere…. Culture as a resource and its management have been central in the process of national construction,… Primary goals of the monument project were to inscribe an official national narrative onto the cityscape and to transform public spaces into national lieux de memoire.[places of memory].

By creating large-scale public art works that encourage people to imagine a shared past, present, and future, the monuments and the media campaigns surrounding them gloss over competing histories and identities based on residency, ethnic, political, and religious affiliation, and class, gender, and age.[4]

Furthermore, in a situation that is very reminiscent of our own in South Africa:

The Bamako monuments address what many African intellectuals, like Konaré and his cultural advisors, identify as a crisis in memory The Konaré government’s aim in creating public monuments was to create sites where urban youth could be reengaged with the history of a shared struggle, and where collective memories could be forged.[5]

Of course there are also practical problems. One of these is the increasing contestation we see around monuments and memorials. There have been several examples: the Duncan Village Massacre Memorial, the Sol Plaatje Statue, the Mbolompho Monument and the recent issue around the statue at the King Shaka International Airport. This contestation is not necessarily a negative thing. It means people are beginning to make their views felt. The lesson from this is that those of us in leadership positions and responsible for heritage and local government need to listen and consult more in heritage matters, so that ordinary people do not feel marginalised by the very manner in which we seek to commemorate their history.

The second challenge is more insidious. We have seen an increase in the vandalism of monuments and memorials. Of course, there are many different reasons as to why vandalism takes place. The central issue is that the people committing the acts of vandalism feel alienated from the statue or memorial in question. The challenge for us, again, is to ensure inclusive and consultative processes that obtain the buy-in of local communities. More and more local authorities and heritage agencies are resorting to protecting memorials and statues with heavy palisaded fencing. A recent international visitor and researcher drew attention to the difficulty of getting access to the memorials:

Three weeks into my Eastern Cape fieldwork trip, I’ve encountered – so far – three memorials which have been locked up behind palisade fences, ostensibly to protect them from ‘vandals’. All these locked memorials are graves, or sites of memory of the dead. Sarah Baartman’s burial place in a little village called Hankey; the Cradock Four memorial in Coega, close to the spot where their burnt-out car was found; and Emlotheni Heroes’ Acre, the site where Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Kayingo and four other activists who were executed by the government in the 1960s are buried.[6]

This is all counter-productive and we run the risk of destroying the very thing we are seeking to achieve if we do not address issues of community ownership, education, vandalism and access. As the National Heritage Council we have begun a process of addressing these issues. We have assembled a team which is drafting discussion documents on a range of issues, including possible guidelines for putting monuments, statues and memorial, as well as how we should handle statues and memorials from the apartheid and colonial past.

Ultimately we all need to understand what we are trying to achieve with the programme of memorialisation. Erecting memorials and statues, at a very fundamental level, is about issues of meaning, identity and social cohesion. It is about how we interpret our past, how define ourselves as a Nation, and what values we seek to espouse and to pass on to our children and our children’s children. Without paying serious attention to these issues our Nation will be a like a leaf on a turbulent stream - tossed this way and that by the currents.

Of course, putting up memorials and commemorating events that are significant in our national identity do not occur in a vacuum. We live in a society characterised by high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Our detractors and critics will be quick to point out that it costs money that should be better spent on health, education, fighting crime and housing. We must not allow ourselves to fall into that trap. It is not an either/or dichotomy, it is not a choice between social services and heritage. As a country we can and must deliver on both. We can built all the houses in the world and provide unlimited access to healthcare and education, but if the soul of our Nation is not healed, if our children grow up disconnected from society - without a sense of their place in the world, without values, without a sense of purpose and without understanding of what it means to be African - then we will be in serious trouble.

The National Development Plan (NDP) is an important and far-reaching document. As a Nation we all need to engage with it and begin to own it like we once all owned the RDP. But if there is one weakness of the NDP that needs to be seriously addressed, it is the absence of focus on the so-called ‘softer’ issues of culture and heritage that should be the glue that binds society together. In this regard I draw inspiration from the first President of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, who stated, ‘A nation without a past is a lost nation. And a people without a past is a people without a soul.’[7] When we achieve our NDP targets (and I have every reason to be optimistic that as South Africans we can achieve the ambitious targets set in the NDP if we all work together), without the inclusion of culture and heritage, our Nation will be like a person with healthy body but no soul. We need to address both the body and soul of the Nation through development.

This is indeed something the His Excellency President Jacob Zuma touched at the social cohesion summit held last year at Kliptown: