We need to remember Mandela – but South Africa’s heritage sites are neglected

“I feel my heart pumping hope steadily in every part of my body, warming my blood and pepping my spirit. I’m convinced that floods of natural disasters can never drown a determined revolutionary. For a freedom fighter, hope is what a lifebelt is to a swimmer, a guarantee that one will keep away from danger.” These are the words of Prince Harry, speaking on Monday at the United Nations to mark Mandela Day, quoting from a letter Nelson Mandela wrote on 1 August 1970. 

On this day, July 18, every year since 2010, the world comes to a halt to commemorate this global figure. Throughout the world, in their own ways, people pause to “harness the light of Mandela’s memory to illuminate the way forward”, Prince Harry added. But, he also urged that, for hope to remain a permanent feature of our lives, to avoid being overwhelmed by everyday challenges, a recollection of Mandela’s memory shouldn’t be an occasional exercise, once in a year. Rather, and because of the dire need for hope and inspiration, remembering Mandela should be an everyday occasion.

Memories hardly spring up spontaneously. They’re triggered. That is why we have memorabilia and monuments. Individuals keep photographs, for instance, of people and places they don’t want to forget. Countries build monuments of extraordinary individuals and to mark defining moments in their history. Place names  — streets, towns, airports — are other embodiments of memories. All these form a public script, a constant reminder to the general citizenry of what we ought to never forget. But they don’t have the same effect as the actual heritage site. Sight or mention of a street or place named after Mandela rarely leads to deep contemplation about what the man stood for. This is because it happens in passing, while one is preoccupied with something else.

Monuments or heritage sites are most suited to trigger a trip down memory lane. This is because people spend time at the sites. They immerse themselves in the moment, opening themselves to learning more about the site or about the historic figure. The appreciation of the meaning of the individual deepens, for the experience is not only intellectual but is also emotional. Being at the historic site, one is able to transpose oneself back to the moment, to imagine what it could have been like at the time. Seeing the path they traversed, we gain a deeper understanding of how tough it was for these people to overcome and go on to change history. This is how memory inspires. If they were able to achieve these feats, overcoming such odds, how can we not emulate them? 

Learning about historical figures through lectures is useful but it is not enough to inspire. We also need to feel their encounters. This is where my worry sets in — that we may not be feeling enough. Mandela’s heritage sites, which would trigger our feelings, giving us inspiration, do not allow adequate access. Take, for instance, the burial site in Qunu and the Victor Verster Prison. Mandela had made it known that he wanted to be buried at the family graveyard in Qunu. Although the location of the grave is not exactly in the family graveyard, it is still within Mandela’s wish. He agreed to the [slight] change of location to give the public easy access. It is closer to the main road, whereas the family graveyard is in the valley.          

Albeit paid for and maintained by the state, the grave is still inaccessible to the public. This is nine years after Mandela was buried, and despite his wishes. Even the ANC’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was denied access in January 2018. Newly elected party president in the previous month, Ramaphosa had visited and laid wreaths to all previous party presidents. This was part of the build-up to the organisation’s 8 January anniversary celebration at Monti (formerly East London), Eastern Cape. 

Mandela’s grandson and chief of Mvezo, Mandla, objected to Ramaphosa, who was then also deputy president of the country, entering the grave on account that the Thembus still had to perform some rituals before the public was allowed into the site. Ramaphosa could not lay wreaths for his predecessor and comrade on account of a Thembu ritual that had not been performed in the four years and was yet to be done on some unclear future date. 

Even if it were true that a Thembu ritual was yet to be performed, Mandla could not make a concession to the president of his own party, and the deputy president of the country. Feeling unwelcome by Mandla, the state had to change its plans for the celebration of Mandela’s release, planned for 11 February 2018. Mvezo and Qunu were originally earmarked to host the anniversary celebrations, but the location was switched to the Victor Verster Prison between Paarl and Franschhoek. This is where, in 1990, Mandela walked out of incarceration into freedom.

Unexpectedly tasked with preparing Mandela’s prison house at Victor Verster for the commemoration, the Nelson Mandela Foundation found the place in no condition to receive guests or for public viewing. The foundation had to make last-minute arrangements to make the place suitable to host the event. The correctional services department did not have a budget to maintain the place and the department of arts and culture, which shoulders the responsibility for heritage, appears to be focusing attention only on the Robben Island Prison. 

There’s a policy gap in at least two areas. First, who, between the state and family, has the final say in relation to public  access at heritage sites of notable figures. Second, which of the two departments — correctional services and arts and culture — should bear the responsibility for maintenance. It’s understandable that family members should feel a heightened sense of ownership over their relatives. That these sites are paid for by the state also obliges them to be accessible to the public and the law prescribes public access. This means boundaries of authority, between the family and state, should be clearly defined and enforced. 

As for the preservation and maintenance of heritage sites, it may require that we, collectively, explore creative ways. Public resources are not infinite and heritage is the least considered of the public goods. The Mandela Foundation provides a useful guide on how sites can be self-sufficient. Shortly after announcing his divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1992, well-wishers allowed Mandela to take occupation of the house at 13th Avenue, Houghton in Johannesburg. 

Six years later, he vacated the house for what became his permanent home on 12th Avenue, also in Houghton. The foundation used the 13th Avenue house for three years until it moved into its current location, leaving the house vacant. Realising the historical value of the house, the foundation appealed to the state to purchase and turn it into a heritage site. Despite committing to doing so, years passed without the house being bought and it has begun to show signs of neglect. Eventually the foundation decided to buy the house and use it partly as a hotel. The idea is to make the house self-sufficient, whilst preserving Mandela’s legacy.

South Africa’s heritage sites need rescuing. There’s no point in relying on the state to do everything when it clearly cannot. The onus falls on the rest of us to “harness the light of Mandela’s memory to illuminate the way forward”. Our future depends on it.

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Mcebisi Ndletyana
Mcebisi Ndletyana is a professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of a forthcoming book on the centenary history of Fort Hare University.

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