Review of History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa by Annie E. Coombs

Eras Journal – Russell, B: Review of “History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa”, Annie E. Coombes

Annie E. Coombes, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa,

Duke University Press, London, 2003

Isbn 0 8223 3072 5

Coming as it does so close to the tenth anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections, Annie E. Coombes’ latest book History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa is a timely and important engagement with the role that visual and material culture has played, and continues to play, in the country’s transformation in the post-apartheid era. In a series of essays, Coombes utilises detailed case studies, from the monolithic Voortrekker Monument to artists’ responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to illuminate the ways in which new narratives are being constructed which disrupt those underpinned by Afrikaner nationalism. While she is an art historian, Coombes’ work concentrates not on the aesthetics of material culture, but instead on the political and social contexts of that culture, and its importance to the construction and maintenance of collective identities within a broader historical narrative. She focuses specifically on the idea of community-driven narratives and interpretations which avoid the “reductive black versus white binary that so often applies to the way the country’s history is perceived outside South Africa”. (p.5)

This is quite clearly demonstrated in her discussion of the Voortrekker monument, a symbol of the fortification of Afrikaner history, in particular the foundation myths of the Great Trek. While the monument has already been the subject of several articles and much debate, Coombes’ treatment of it is more detailed, and enlivened, as are all her case studies, by first-hand accounts of visits to the monument. She outlines the readings of the monument by various parties, highlighting not only the tensions between Black and Afrikaner South African readings, but including also the way in which South Africa’s porn magazine Hustler attempts to subvert traditional understandings of the monument in a photographic spread.

Coombes also discusses the complex debate around the fate of Robben Island, the prison in which many of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists were held, and demonstrates the difficulties of providing a unified history of the liberation struggle in South Africa. This is especially the case when considering not only the key question of ‘ownership’ of sites of significance, but also ownership of the struggle itself; in the case of Robben Island Museum, the conflicts between the economic potential of the island and preservation and heritage issues were further complicated by the complaints of former prisoners and political groups that the site’s interpretation was dominated by its most famous former inmate, Nelson Mandela. The chapter on Robben Island takes a comparative approach, looking at the attempts in other countries to represent ‘slave’ or ‘prison’ histories, including reference to slave forts in Ghana, and Kilmainham Gaol and the Maze prison in Ireland. Coombes also broaches the sometimes controversial parallels that have been drawn between apartheid and the Holocaust, and draws her own comparisons, not between the ‘events’, but rather between the physical spaces which remain, and the problems that arise when attempts are made to “create a monument to crime and ugliness” (Henry Moore quoted on p.91) in that space.

Coombes’ work is enormously wide-ranging. It looks not only at the ‘big ticket’ sites such as Robben Island and the Voortrekker Museum, but also engages with more (at times literally) obscure monuments and artworks. A chapter on museological strategies, “New Histories for Old” outlines some of the challenges which faced national museums in the years before and after the elections. Coombes details attempts to adequately represent previously hidden histories and communities, including South Africa’s slave past and the recreation of ‘informal settlements’ (townships) in Museum Africa, which replaced the European settler focused Africana Museum. “New Subjectivities for the New Nation” explores the responses of artists to the voices and the silences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s public hearings, and the book finishes with a discussion of proposed changes to artwork in the South African High Commission in London.

History After Apartheid is an engaging read, quite generously illustrated with photographs of the sites under discussion, although these are not always of the best quality. It is efficiently referenced and has an comprehensive bibliography which should be of great use to its main audience of students and academics in South African history, politics and culture. While the work deals specifically with issues around public memory in South Africa, the issues it examines are more broadly relevant to any society in transition. The work is very accessible and should also have wider appeal to scholars in public history, sociology, politics and visual culture.

Barbara Russell
Department of Historical Studies, Monash University