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Review of Apartheid's Festival: Contesting South Africa's national paths


By Yvette Hutchison

Apartheid’s Festival: Contesting South Africa’s national pasts. by Leslie Witz. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis 2003. 324 pp. ISBN 0 253 21613 3. David Philip, Cape Town. ISBN 86486 637 2.

In the decade since 1994 South Africa has undergone the typical post-independence period of reworking official histories and memories, ranging from renegotiating commemorative days to rewriting history books and school syllabi. Within this context this book can be read as another fascinating contribution to the various narratives and counter-narratives of renegotiated memory. However, Leslie Witz’s work from the 1980s has consistently challenged the dominant, linear narratives of South African history and it is against his body of work that this exploration of national festivals must be read.

Through the book Witz uses the metaphor of the state ‘curating the nation’ by means of festivals which are used to perform highly complex negotiated constructions of white South Africa national identity post the 1948 elections.

The introduction lays out past constructions and contestations of South African historiography, starting from the choice of ‘founding date’, and van Riebeeck himself as the European icon to represent white history in Southern Africa. This introduction focuses more on the processes of producing history than the products thereof. Witz particularly frames the complexities of the fault lines in the apartheid state’s attempts to create a coherent narrative and unified national identity against the realities of industrialization, black urbanisation and the popular struggle. Further contradictions and tensions arose from trying to invoke white supremacy while denying ties to Europe and the colonial endeavour; and trying to balance Afrikaner nationalist ideals of family and church against the need to draw in English speaking South Africans, while both groups were still distrustful of one another following the South African war. He also notes how the counter-narratives in engaging with the dominant served not to dismantle it, but to ‘reflect’ and thus somehow authenticate the ‘original text’ of the memories and pasts being offered as histories.

The rest of the book is divided into five sections, each tracing a specific aspect of the complex journey towards constructing a coherent past and a united white national identity. The first in 19th century, and becomes country and political more than the DEIC. Witz demonstrates the many, varied and even contestatory visions of van Riebeeck in comparing visual representations of him to accounts looks at the choice of van Riebeeck as a figure, possible alternatives and the reasons for finally settling on what is finally an ambivalent figure. He also traces the shifts in focus from the 18th to 20th centuries, where the emphasis moves from a focus on God and Company in 18th century, to justification for territorial appropriation in history text-books and the three different editions of his diaries. Each of these cultural products was specifically constructed and edited in such a way as to justify the present, as opposed to representing any actual past figure or events.

The rest of the book looks at the planning, staging and reception of the tercentenary celebrations. Chapters 2 and 3 plot the tensions between the state and predominantly Afrikaner nationalist organizers, and the complexities of drawing in the English into this celebration. Chapter 2 focuses on ‘Building a nation’ by considering the initial planning in the late 1940s, both before and after the 1948 election; then it looks at the various organisations and committees involved in organising and authorizing this official performance of memory. The impact of cultural organisations like the Afrikaans Taal en Kultuur Vereniging (Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association) came as a surprise to me, and was a powerful reminder of the impact culture can make in political moments of a nation. It finally it takes a closer look at two selected events: the People’s Pageant and Pageant of the Griqua and Cape Malay to see how these separate performances by what were perceived as minority groups were used to construct elements of the racial discourse around van Riebeeck and the newly emergent apartheid South Africa.

Chapter 3 considers the contestation of these memories and their performance by organisations like the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress. They boycotted the call for ‘tribal natives’ and ‘Malay and Coloured’ communities to inhabit a village at the festival fair and participate in the Langa township festival. School teachers were key in this battle, as the Dutch Reformed Church wanted ‘coloured’ people to take their place as children of the Mother Church, while political organisations called them to join the Teachers League of South Africa and reject all co-operation with any organisation supporting segregation of any kind. Thus educational organisations - schools and universities alike - took their place in either participating in or boycotting this event. He also points to oppositional events like the ANC mass rally on Cape Town’s Grand Parade, to promote boycotts. A problematic response was staging contestatory plays at schools, which held the danger of reproducing rather than undermining these images. Another point of contestation was to challenge the historical authority of the printed word. Thus newspapers ran images directly inverting some of the historical representations of the festival. Witz goes on to point out the irony of this in what he calls the ‘boomerang’ effect as the actions demonstrated an unspoken meeting between the two histories, and even a dependence on each other.

The fourth chapter looks at the actual festival and responses to it in detail, with maps of the layout and descriptions of the progress through the event. Ironically, and not unlike equivalent exhibitions in Europe, the exhibition demonstrating the aspirations to ‘modern’ industrialised progress of this new nation were paradoxically undermined by questions raised about the fundamental assumptions of their progress and modern civilisation by the Bushmen being displayed as curiosities, not far from baboons. The ultimate irony for Witz is that the festival finally was a ‘producerly text’, seen through a multitude of eyes and bodily experiences and thus open to a myriad interpretations and meanings.

The fifth and final chapter was most interesting for me. It focussed on the intersections between the aspiration for a national festival, encapsulating a coherent sense of an authorised history and identity; and the local understanding and performance of the same. In order to make van Riebeeck spatially national, and not specific to the Cape, the organisers expanded the festival to include the journeys of seven mail coaches starting from their respective places, travelling through nearly 60 major towns in South Africa, covering some 11,000 miles, and converging on Cape Town on 30th March. As the coaches passed through the cities and towns, local festivals would great them. Interesting choices of inclusion and omission were made in these local festivities, which demonstrate preferred memory. But one of the most interesting and controversial is the mail coach processions, which did not all conform to the unified vision of the organisers. For example the East London float disputed the vision prescribed, acknowledging immigrants, like the Germans. The float in Cape Town depicted the Commonwealth of Nations. It was ‘a little sailing vessel manned by five young ladies of the City’: Miss Britannia, Miss Canada, Miss New Zealand, Miss Australia and Miss South Africa – hardly the vision of a nation on the road to newly defined independence.

Witz ends by looking at the response of the post-apartheid government in 2001 when they agreed to acknowledge the 350th with local commemorations as ‘an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge our diversity and build unity and understanding in an equal South Africa’. However, nothing planned ocurred, the banners with ‘350 on a blue background’ were unclear in referent. Some viewed this moment in South African history as having been ‘consigned to the rubbish dump of history’. However, Witz argues that the date and figure is so much part of how the history and nation has been constituted, that the contestations must and will continue.

Witz offers an unprecedented study of the van Riebeeck tercentenary, with the influences and conditions that shaped the event. While touching on the comparison with the 1938 Great Trek centenary celebrations, and the Pageant of Union in 1910, these could perhaps have been fleshed out a little more. The notes, maps, and reproductions of photographs are thorough and excellent as reference material and the bibliography comprehensive. The comparisons to reenactments of comparable Australian and American Founders days was fascinating and enough to provoke interest and further reading in this area of contested histories and the construction of national memory. This is a significant contribution to the work around creating and contesting histories and narratives in South Africa and a valuable addition to the resources of students of history, museum, theatre and cultural studies.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 92-95]

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