Egazini and counter-memorialisation

Egazini and counter-memorialisation

What is the relationship between remembrance and public commemoration in such things as memorials and commemorative statues? The short answer is that what is called history, and what is called historical memory, is what has been shaped by ‘the victors‘, by dominant groups and organisations that assume they represent the facts but actually propound one viewpoint on this. The Egazini Memorial – in Makhanda, formally Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape – is one example among many in South Africa that is concerned with addressing the imbalance, of dismantling old and erecting new visions of the past.

Such things have recently been much in the news, or at least in some parts of the world, where there has been a rush to dismantle statues and memorials seen as now politically and ethically unacceptable. One deeply ironic result has been much more attention to and knowledge about the iniquities of particular persons in the past than they had received for many decades or centuries. Such things are also under contention, not least because there is no simple answer to the issues concerning commemorative presence in public space. These (almost) always represent one particular viewpoint on the past, there is no way of representing every viewpoint without contention. And so a different approach to such things has been adopted by the ANC government in South Africa.

It has instead over many years supported a counter-commemoration strategy with high level public agencies involved in this. Through this, counter-memorialisation has been linked with history, with heritage and with visitors and tourists as a revenue stream. An overarching element of this is the national Liberation Heritage Route project, which identifies and designates historically important sites and encourages commemoration in a counter-memorialisation form. That is, it counters with new memorials, rather than removes old ones.

The Egazini Memorial has been incorporated within this wider government project, from a community base. The Egazini – place of blood – Memorial commemorates Xhosa warriors who died in  the Battle of Grahamstown in 1819. For many years this key event was largely forgotten in historiography of the so-called Frontier Wars, and was commemorated mainly by a taken-for-granted monument in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) to Elizabeth Salt, said to have carried gunpowder through the attackers’ lines to support the settlers and their allies in this then-small settler base.

The battle site is in a now rundown black area. The Egazini Outreach Project’s involvement in recovering memory and encouraging new interpretations started in the 2000s and is interestingly discussed by Julia Wells (2003), a key figure in the project. The Memorial was unveiled by the Department of Arts & Culture in 2001. A newer part of the Memorial was added in 2015. This has a number of mosaic pillars by local artists commemorating different aspects of Egazini, with some featuring amaXhosa proverbs. Some photographs of the memorial sites are shown via the web link referenced at the end of this blog.

Like many of the Government’s designated heritage memory sites, Egazini is now littered and rarely visited. The community impetus which gave rise to the memorial has largely run out of puff as people’s lives changed, although the Outreach Project’s other work is still well maintained. However, the envisaged visitors, both South African and international tourists, who had been expected to flow through the national Liberation Heritage landscape and to visit the Egazini Memorial among many others in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere have rarely materialised.

Can memory be promoted and manufactured when there is no clear basis for it in oral or other everyday accounts and memory practices? Examples from elsewhere in the world suggest that it can, although infrequently in democratic societies because it tends to be imposed from on high. In the South African context, it would seem that there is perhaps too much going on about remaking the present and forging the future for attempts to resuscitate remembrance of events seen as historiographically important to succeed when there is little or no organic basis with this in local remembrance. People’s priorities are different, and differ in different localities. The commemorative places in South Africa that have achieved success in such terms are very different from these locally-rooted endeavours.

The Black Memorials pages on the SAWM (South African War Memorials) website provide many examples of the counter-memorialisation process, both those that are firmly rooted in local remembrance, and those which have been promoted and constructed through national political endeavour. They witness a wide range of both local and extra-local responses to them, from attentive use rooted in strong local memory, to littered, abandoned and sad places, to tourist honey-pots.

Further information will be found at:

Black Memorials pages at https://www.sawarmemorials.ed.ac.uk/concentration-camps-of-the-south-african-war-1899-1902/black-memorials/

Egazini Memorial at https://www.sawarmemorials.ed.ac.uk/egazini-memorial-makhanda-eastern-cape/

Julia C. Wells. “From Grahamstown to Egazini: Using art and history to construct post colonial identity and healing in the new South Africa.” African Studies 62.1 (2003): 79-98.

Last updated: 17 December 2020


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