Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Week 2: “Monuments are controversial..."

By Cole Chernushin and Molly Hetzner

Week two our group continued down our long walk of South African history, ultimately ending with our group catching a flight to our more permanent home in Windhoek. From the stone engravings of The African National Congress’s “Freedom Charter” to the feet of the impending Voortrekker Monument, we experienced two brave histories that tell radically different tales about the settling of the same nation.
Freedom Square, the home of the “Freedom Charter,” 
the 10 goals for South Africa drafted by the 
African National Congress (ANC) in 1955.
We began our week with our group being shepherded to Kliptown in order to view Freedom Square. This once dusty market has since been renovated to commemorate the first meeting of the Congress of the People (a group of over 3,000 representatives of resistance from around South Africa). The charter drafted by this assembly went on to be used as the constitution for one of the primary Apartheid resistance groups (that nowadays holds a majority of the seats in the South African Parliament and the presidential seat): The African National Congress. On our tour we also had the pleasure of Molefi Mataboge's company as our official tour guide. Molefi, not only lived through Apartheid, he also fought on the frontlines against South Africa’s systematic oppression (and went to jail for doing so). After arriving at the uphill side of the red bricked, rectangular, plaza, our group walked past several street merchants before stepping inside a rather tall cone (also sculpted from red brick) in order to gaze upon the Freedom Charter, drafted on June 26th, 1955. While many of us read each article of the constitution which called for radical changes such as freedom for all, people to share in the country’s wealth, work and security, and even pace and friendship, a gentleman serenaded us with several tunes on his recorder. This serene moment allowed all of us a time to reflect upon just how many of these goals set forth over 65 years ago had been accomplished to this day. Certainly the South Africa of today would be a great delight in many regards to those who drafted the Freedom Charter, but as the ragged gentleman in the corner playing his plastic instrument could attest, a number of the economic ideals laid before us have yet to come to fruition. As further testament to the economic hardship faced by many in, around, and beyond the city of Kliptown, even the “eternal” flame in the center of the stone charter had been shut off in order to save money. A few students dropped various coins into the local artist’s hat before making our way into a free museum that chronicles the plight of the Congress of the People as well as all those involved on the freedom front of South Africa. 
The “Freedom Charter” carved into stone, 
with an intended eternal flame to commemorate 
all those fought for South Africa’s freedom. 
However, due to financial reasons, 
this eternal flame remains unlit.

This museum, though small in size, did an excellent job of depicting the plight of all those who fought oppressive rule in order to make an appearance that day in June of ’55, as well as the countless others who fought behind the scenes to make sure those who did make the journey would have essential materials such as water and a bed when they arrived. The exhibits did a fantastic job of bring to light all the hard work put behind the organization of the liberation movement. After stepping out of the darkened interior of the museum, our group sat in relative silence, half adjusting to the bright, cloudless sky, half mulling over all we had just taken in. Perhaps just as stirring as the museum’s content were the surrounding houses still within the limits of Kliptown. Upon gazing at the ramshackle houses, our guide, Molefi, solemnly stated, “It’s embarrassing to me that 20 years after we’ve been a democracy people still live in these conditions.”
The beautiful Voortrekker Monument, standing tall in 
South Africa’s executive capitol, Pretoria, commemorates 
the Afrikaners who made the “Great Trek.” 
After a beautiful picnic lunch in front of the Pretoria Union building, our group toured the Voortrrekker Monument, honoring the Dutch men, women, and children who made the journey from Cape Colony known as the Great Trek. Our tour guide Professor Jackie Grobler[1] noted that, “Monuments are controversial; although this is very one-sided, the best monuments are.” This monument proved just that. Grandiose both in design and stature, the disparity between the brick laden Freedom Square and Voortrekker’s pristine granite structure was quite poignant. Unlike the progressive statements found in the Freedom Charter, the Voortrekker Monument’s bottom level includes a symbolic grave with the words Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika, meaning “We for thee, South Africa,” the final line in the country’s previous anthem. The middle level, known as the Hall of Heroes, is filled with a Historical Freeze, depicting the story of the Voortrekkers. This beautiful marble work depicts different stories in 27 panels, each from the perspective of the Dutch colonists. Sweeping views from all sides of the monument’s upper floors gave our group the opportunity to look over all the land that the Afrikaners (the name the Dutch adopted after settling in South Africa) once held absolute rule over. Many in our group felt this monument to be over the top in many regards, and could understand why after the end of Apartheid, a large number of South African’s wanted to tear it to the ground. Still, the fact that this monument remains serves a great tribute to the leadership of the African National Congress in seeking reconciliation, not retribution, following the end of decades of pain.  
The many viewpoints that spanned our stay in Johannesburg raised plenty of questions about the past, present and future of reconciliation, redemption, and South Africa as a whole. From the hardships of the Congress of the People, to the pioneer experiences of the Dutch settlers, many sides can be taken as to who deserves a more noble place in history. Thankfully, these monuments have no foreseeable future plans of changing, so the debates they spark should continue well into the future. 

[1] Jackie Grobler is a Professor of Historical and Heritage Studies Pretoria University who spoke to our group on 27 August, 2013.

1 comment:

nora said...

Has your experience in facing the history of apartheid&poverty&thepresent remains of it in S.A.made you think of your own country&it's ravism&popoverty?