Holidays, Museums, Statues. South Africans Commemorate Apartheid and Celebrate Heroes. What Can Liberia Learn?

R. Joyclyn Wea with New Narratives

Tourists at Constitutional Hill watch a documentary on apartheid In South Africa

In November 2023 New Narratives reporters, including R. Joyclyn Wea, traveled to South Africa to learn what the country has done to commemorate and reconcile after fifty years of apartheid and see what lessons there are for Liberia.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa— Thirty years ago this place struck terror into the hearts of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists. The prison here at Constitution Hill, overlooking the city, was the site of appalling police brutality and widespread human violations during the apartheid regime.

Today it has been transformed into a major tourist destination attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Among those tourists are many South Africans, including schoolchildren. For many it is a painful experience, helping them understand the true horrors endured under apartheid and the heroes who fought it. And it helps ensure it never happens again, according to historian and tour guide

 

Ntsika Gqomfa.

“Commemoration is very important for us and for the rest of the world to understand why things happened the way they did, and also to identify and recognize the people who fought for freedom, fought against the historical injustices, ensuring our history is protected,” says Gqomfa. “It makes sure that people are aware of what happened so that it should not repeat what we have overcome.”

In Liberia, the dark side of settler history and the back-to-back civil wars that left 250,000 dead, are rarely discussed. They are not taught in schools, there are few memorials and no statues of heroes who fought to end the bloodshed. The 2009 Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report said sweeping the horrors under the rug was a mistake. It recommended a war and economic crimes court, reparations totaling $US500 million for victims, and memorials in each of the 15 counties.

None of that happened. Sirleaf and Weah administrations shelved most of the recommendations of the report. Activists and international leaders have pressured governments to do more saying Liberians must deal with their history if they’re to trust government and unite to build the country.

By contrast, South Africa’s post-apartheid leaders, led by Nelson Mandela, were determined to pursue reconciliation and healing, including through commemoration. Many experts say the grace and forgiveness of leaders like Mandela in those fragile post-apartheid years saved the country from civil war.

Commemoration, or “keeping the past alive,” was one of the recommendations of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There are a number of public holidays throughout the year recognizing anti-apartheid efforts including Human Rights Day, Reconciliation Day, and Freedom Day on April 27th which commemorates the first post-apartheid elections in 1994 where, for the first time, everyone of voting age, could vote, regardless of race. The elections ended the remarkable four-year period which took Mandela from a 27-year prison term to president of South Africa’s first black majority government.

Activities on these days encourage school children to learn about history, reflect on its lessons, and celebrate their different backgrounds. Streets have also been renamed in honor of anti-apartheid freedom fighters.

Thirty years on there’s been little bloodshed. There’ve been peaceful democratic transitions. There’s also a remarkable degree of racial harmony given the history. The political and business elite includes a mix of racial backgrounds. Mandela has passed on but his wish for a “rainbow nation” is as close to reality here as it is almost anywhere in the world.  

There are big problems. South Africa is plagued by corruption, unemployment, and inequality. But it boasts Africa’s second-biggest economy and, in fields such as infrastructure, industry, and education, it is more advanced than most other countries on the continent, especially our own.

Anti-apartheid leaders credit the success of the efforts Mandela and subsequent governments made to commemorate the horrors of colonization and apartheid.

“We had a narrative in our history that was extremely slanted and ignored, a whole lot of things, events, and people,” said Anton Harber, founder of the anti-apartheid newspaper The Weekly Mail. Journalists, including white journalists like Harber, played a key role in bringing the truth of the apartheid system’s horrors to South Africans and the world. “And so, part of reconciliation, you have to reconstruct that history and bring out the voices that were not heard in the previous history. Things like Freedom Day, the museums, and the statues are a way of reinforcing the values of freedom and liberation, reminding ourselves again, and again, what we went through and how different it is now.”

Here at Constitution Hill, visitors tour the former prison including solitary confinement cells, showers with no walls, and food areas all designed to degrade, dehumanize and divide prisoners. Secretly taken photos from the day show prisoners lined up naked in the direction of white prison guards.

A quote on a wall in the women’s section from leading activist Mmaqauta Molefe shows the suffering of prisoners here too. Molefe would go on to become one of the first Black women to vote.

“We were sleeping on the floor a cold floor,” the quote says. “The roof was very high. You know when you lie down in the cell and you look up, you feel like you are in a grave.”

 

One of today’s visitors is Prema Naidoo, a political activist, who spent a year imprisoned here in 1982. Naidoo says he brings all his grandchildren here to make sure they understand their history and the power of forgiveness.

“I bring my grandchildren and tell them not to be bitter,” he says. “I bring them here so that they can grow up to be better people. If you know where you came from, it informs who you are, and who you will be in the future. We must not forget the past so that it never happens again to other people. That’s why Mandela said never again, must people be treated like that.”

 

Tourists view pictures of anti-apartheid leaders at Constitution Hill Museum. Credit: Anthony Stephens/New Narratives.

It’s not just South Africans who are learning from South Africa’s history. Tourism is big business here. Most international tourists come to see the animals in the game reserves but many also visit the country’s 300 museums and memorials to its past. Four million tourists visited the country in 2023 according to official government statistics, bringing in more than $US20 billion.

 

Another stop on the tourist trail is the National Heritage Project. Project founder, Dali Tambo, has made it his life’s work to honor the heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle including his father Oliver Reginald Tambo, a revered ally of Mandela, and longest-serving president of the anti-apartheid political party, the African National Congress.

In 2010 Dali, an artist and filmmaker, created the project, which has, so far, created and erected 101 bronze statues of the struggle’s heroes. His statue of O.R. welcomes arrivers at Johannesburg’s international airport which bears his name.

During an interview at his home in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg, Dali recalled his inspiration for the project during one of his regular visits to his parents’ graves.

“I said to him [O.R.], ‘Look, you know, I do statutes. And in this whole country, there isn’t a single statue of you, despite what you did in the struggle. And I’m going to do one,’” recalled Dali. “And that night, as I was dreaming, somehow he came to me. He said, ‘No, don’t do one just of me. Do it for all of those who contributed to our struggle. It wasn’t just me. So, the next day, I thought about it and decided, you know what, I’m going to do this project.”

Dali said commemoration is critical to South Africa’s journey forward but he warned that commemoration cannot stop with statues, street names, and holidays. True commemoration means ensuring the economic welfare of all South Africans.  

“We must ensure that our people have a decent standard of living, that they have water, sanitation, food, employment, all of these kinds of things,” Dali said. “That’s how you honor your forefathers.”

Tambo said South Africa offers a lot of lessons to countries like Liberia that share a painful past.

“I think the thing that’s so important [is] for countries like Liberia to clearly articulate whether it’s books, or statues or films or whatever, for their people. Because what it does is it imbues national identity, and national pride, which is so important for all of us.”

Back in Liberia Adama Dempster, a war and economic crimes court campaigner, hailed South Africa’s efforts which he wants Liberia to emulate.

“There are good things you could still implement from the South African scenario such as the Freedom Day,” Dempster. “It’s something that could help people who lost their family members without proper burial, without respect, as the result of the way they were killed, could have time to remember and reflect soberly.”

Adama is one of many justice activists and international partners calling on the incoming Boakai government to finally implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. They say until that happens Liberia will not be able to enjoy the trust, governance, and harmony it needs for people to work together to lift the country.

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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