Reckoning with Apartheid

How South African public spaces can preserve cultural heritage and contribute to a brighter future

By Sarah Widder



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n May of 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Town with my dad for four days. During our brief visit, we tried to see the most popular tourist sites to get to know the city and the culture of South Africa. Everywhere we went, from Table Mountain to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, we could see remnants of a country struggling to reckon with a bloody, yet recent, past. The city is bustling and cosmopolitan, bursting with people of all shapes and sizes. It felt familiar, like the downtown area of any decently sized city in the U.S.. But, the minute we left the airport – a long taxi ride past miles of shantytowns along the highway into downtown – we could tell that there was an undercurrent of lingering poverty, inequality, and intolerance. These coursed  through the city despite everyone’s best efforts to move on from apartheid. After just a few days, we left with the feeling that this country that has been a beacon of forgiveness and reconciliation to the world was still very much a work in progress. As the country struggles to reconcile its conflicted past with its hopeful future, there remains much to be done in the cultivation and protection of cultural heritage in South Africa, starting with more careful and multilateral design of historical and cultural tourist sites.


Robben Island was a powerful example of the incomplete work of reconciliation. Our visit to the site of the former maximum security prison where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held for decades during apartheid was physically and emotionally overwhelming. With about two hundred other tourists, we were bused around the island for a look at the major sites around the prison: the house where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement, the quarries where prisoners worked, and the small town that housed guards, lawyers, and some civilians that still live there today. After the bus ride, large groups followed guides, many of whom were former political prisoners held on Robben Island, around the maximum security prison. The tour culminated in a glimpse into Nelson Mandela’s cell.


The narrative told by the Robben Island tour experience was certainly powerful. It was story of suffering and oppression that ended in liberation and justice. This was the narrative we expected and it was served up in the broad strokes of a scripted bus tour and the story of one former inmate. However, according to Professor Grant Parker, Classics Department Chair at Stanford University, there are many other stories to tell about Robben Island and the liberation movement in general. A native South African, Professor Parker has extensively studied the role of monuments in the public memory.


Former prisoners who were not affiliated with the African National Congress (ANC) might share a very different narrative from what many tourists come to Robben Island to hear. “They would make it clear that it wasn’t just the ANC that led the liberation. There were a lot of other people involved,” said Parker. “They might also emphasize the fact that since the end of apartheid, government by the ANC has not gone so smoothly, and that there are a lot of ANC people – former inmates, in fact – who have made rather a mess of their time in power.”


Several hours on Robben Island, of course, cannot be expected to give tourists a deep understanding of the multilateral resistance to apartheid and the political effects of the ANC’s time in power. However, our tour did not leave room for the possibility of any other narrative beyond the one given. As a result, the power of the visit to inspire new perspectives and greater recognition of the complexity of the history of apartheid was weakened. We left saddened by the suffering endured by the prisoners and moved by the struggles of the heroes of the ANC liberation movement. But, we weren’t sure how our visit could contribute to greater discussion and positive movement in the future of South Africa.


“Even though objectively, every place seems to have one story, a good monument or memorial will actually prompt the visitor to recognize that there are different stories, different perspectives that need to be considered,” Parker said. “The temptation is always for a place like Robben Island to tell one story, and it happens to be the story of the people who are running the show at the time.”


Combatting this temptation can be extremely difficult, especially when the place in question has such great significance to tourism. Visitors come to any such place with their own expectations of the narrative they will hear and judgments about the place that they will look to confirm. Uncertainty and conflicting perspectives make people uncomfortable. We want to find one clear narrative to give us something concrete to take away with us when we get back on the ferry to Cape Town. We want to find a piece of ourselves in what we see before us. “At some point heritage has to be my heritage, whoever I am, and whatever affinities, identities, wishes, hopes, and fears I carry,” said Parker. “A good monument, memorial, or museum will have some kind of interpretive center that can play this out in a thought-provoking way. Something that places the onus on the visitor to form some judgments rather than to have their prior judgments reinforced.”


This is a tall order, especially in less developed countries such as South Africa, where the focus is on boosting tourism and support for the party in power rather than developing true sites of cultural heritage. Museums and places like Robben Island can bring many visitors, and consequently their money, into South Africa. According to Professor Parker, very little of this money goes into the heritage sector.


Yet, there are some heritage sites that have managed to bring in multiple narratives for a more complete look at the past. During our brief visit to Cape Town, we also visited the District Six Museum, which managed to provoke discussion and new judgments rather than simply reinforcing existing ones.


Slightly off the beaten path of major tourist sites, the Museum documents the story of District Six, an area near downtown Cape Town that was once a vibrant multicultural neighborhood until tens of thousands of residents were forcibly removed in the 1970s by the apartheid regime. Houses and buildings were destroyed, new roads cut through former residential blocks, and new development attempted to repurpose the district for white residence. This development was halted by the fall of the apartheid regime, and an arduous and slow process of land reclamation began that continues today. District Six remains a blank space in the middle of Cape Town, a stark reminder of the physical and cultural destruction brought about by the apartheid regime.


The District Six Museum integrated photographs, personal testimonials, government documents, and many other sources to give visitors as complete a picture of the story of the neighborhood and its residents as possible. The current efforts to locate former residents for reclamation of their land were documented and explained. Above all, the District Six Museum gave voice to the multitudes that were uprooted and oppressed by the apartheid regime. The many narrative threads of residents and government workers wove together into a kind of tapestry that gave us an idea of the story of District Six, but also clearly indicated where the tapestry had holes or where narrative threads snarled together in conflicting accounts.

The former neighborhood of District Six is now primarily empty land, a reminder of the destruction caused by the apartheid regime.

As when we left Robben Island, we left the District Six museum saddened by the suffering endured by the evicted residents and moved by the efforts of those dedicated to restoring and preserving as much of the culture of District Six as possible. But we also left with questions about how best to heal this scar on Cape Town’s landscape, and how the many stories from District Six fit into the larger trend of forced removals and oppression that underpinned the apartheid regime. Clearly, the work to right the wrongs of apartheid is far from finished.


These are just two examples of many cultural places of memory with complex pasts mired in the difficult history of apartheid. As Professor Parker said, “There’s no one way to do heritage. Heritage needs to be an ongoing, multilateral conversation in which the government, both national and local, must convene.” For South Africa, this means that “the government must be attentive to heritage and make it a priority. They need to take heritage seriously.” To do so, cultural heritage sites must move beyond unilateral narratives and a focus on pleasing tourists. Robben Island, and places like it, must overcome the temptation to present the politically convenient story and instead seek to provoke discussion and true, positive change.


Sarah Widder ‘20 is a Cognitive Science major in Berkeley College. Contact her at