There is an irony in the fact that the practice of history has declined so rapidly since 1994. Historians are an ageing lot, engaged in an unfashionable pursuit with limited material rewards. The number of students studying history at high schools and universities is small and few of our top young minds elect to write history for a living.
But this month I have been tempted to believe that history is making a comeback. The anniversary of Steve Biko’s death has created considerable public discussion. There have been three major lectures, a conference and numerous newspaper articles and TV inserts.
Questions have been raised about Biko’s life, his ideas, his influence and the political movements to which he contributed. There has been a public debate on the nature of our history and its meaning for our future.
To add to this the Apartheid Museum is hosting the first major exhibition on Biko’s life and times. For us the practice of history is a practical affair. People visit the museum to understand more about how life was lived during apartheid — and how it was defeated.
Temporary exhibitions, such as the one about Biko, allow us to dwell on particular moments in history and consider the implications for the present. Putting together an exhibition about the life of Biko has been a salutary experience. Biko’s ideas, his presence and his ambition have powered their way down the decades, filling us with a sense of inspiration and a realisation of the depth of what we lost.
His personal charisma, intelligence and philosophical ambition have made themselves felt immediately. Biko is a towering figure in our history, despite the brevity of his life and the humility of his origins. And yet there is little serious historical work on his life. Until now there has been little public reflection on his ideas and what they mean for us today. The same can, of course, be said for many other important South Africans.
Like many museums the Apartheid Museum must write history, as well as popularise it. We hope the exhibition on the life and times of Bantu Stephen Biko will contribute both to what we know about Biko and the public understanding of his life — and make clear what a significant contribution he made to our society. More than that, we hope it will fire greater enthusiasm for history, something Biko would have found indispensable.
Biko: The Quest for a True Humanity is a collaboration between the department of education, the Biko Foundation and the Apartheid Museum. The exhibition is curated by Emilia Potenza and runs from November 2007 to June 2008 at the museum
Bringing back the silver screen
“One of our objectives is to resuscitate the old township cinemas,” says Thabiso Masudubele of the Gauteng Film Commission. “But first we need to redevelop the movie-going audiences we used to have there.”
Masudubele has been tasked with bringing local movies to a new audience or, rather, getting the old audience back in. “We don’t want white elephants,” he says. So, working with managers and owners of the independent movie houses, Masudubele brings local titles, for a nominal fee, to venues that may be more used to showing flicks with mass appeal, full of kung-fu and car chases.
“The win aspect for audiences is that they don’t have to move from Soweto to see films that are made in South Africa,” says Masudubele. “Then we may not have a situation where a film such as Tsotsi is first screened at the Edinburgh film festival.
“The old township bioscopes were owned by people from those communities. I grew up in Meadowlands where there was a cinema called the Lilly. I used to walk there. We used to pay five bucks to watch two shows. It was a family business, they used to make money.”
The Gauteng Film Commission is also on to the abundance of historical, independent movie houses in city centres (above). Discussions have begun about moving local movies into these, although the township model will have to prove itself first. — Matthew Krouse