Freedom Day

The ways in which Nelson Mandela’s image as a referent of South Africa's recent past has been appropriated, signified and transformed into material form as commemoration.

Mandela statue at Southbank Centre in London. Image credit Paul Simpson via Flickr.

Today marks the anniversary of Freedom Day in South Africa. It is an occasion to reflect on the recent and distant past. This is significant because in recent weeks the past has re-emerged as a category of political and public debate. Here, the past refers to the recent 20th century past, the past of Apartheid. That said, the past never really wanes out of public discourse as the question of understanding the present socio-political conditions in South Africa are always hooked onto some historical reference. And it is Nelson Mandela, the symbol and referent of one transition from that past, that has come to be the focus of these recent debates about the qualitative substance of that past. In this brief post, however, I would like to reflect on the ways in which Mandela’s image as a referent of that past has been appropriated, signified and transformed into material form as commemoration, in an attempt to understand what it says about post-apartheid South Africans’ relations to a particular past and the significance of those practises for material commemorations post-apartheid.

Over the last weekend of March, Nelson Mandela was admitted to hospital for the second time since the start of 2013. Naturally, his admission attracted intense media attention, with focus being drawn to the status of the aging statesman’s health. In the wake of the public speculation that again enveloped Mandela and his family, and the questions asked about the morality of the enterprise, the acclaimed South African cartoonist Zapiro weighed in with a cartoon that called for South Africans to start accepting Mandela’s frail, ordinary mortality and let him go. Instead of letting go, however, South Africans sought to affirm their connection with and support for Mandela in seemingly ordinary yet culturally extraordinary ways, by, for example, laying stones of support outside his Houghton home while he was hospitalized. It was reported that members of the public embellished these lithic markers with messages such as “Get well we love you” and “I wish you many more b-days to come”. These Madiba Rocks therefore affirmed Mandela’s continued resonance in the public psyche as a national patriarch and reaffirmed the public’s ethereally real bond with him. More significantly, however, in affirming their affinity for Mandela through the laying of stones at his front door, South Africans were generating a spontaneous memorial, a humble form of commemoration with powerful cultural and historical significance.

Variably referred to as spontaneous shrines, roadside shrines or simply grassroots memorials, memorials like these are generated across the world when material markers and messages of support quickly accumulate at sites related to death and tragedy. As far as it relates to celebrities, it can be traced to the outpouring of public grief after the violent death of Princess Diana, and the enormous floral tribute that bloomed at the gates of Kensington Palace. Another iconic spontaneous memorial sprang up at St Pauls Trinity Church in downtown New York immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks. Survivors, loved ones and friends transformed the church boundary fence into a rich, refulgent tapestry of grief and solidarity, embellishing it with a material culture of fabrics, photographs, flags and hand-written notes for the departed. Collected, curated and preserved inside the church space, the assemblage endures not as ephemera but as an amalgam of broken-hearted interpretations of a national tragedy.

Materially, spontaneous memorials manifest in particular ways, and their material forms speak to the very substance of their cultural and historical significance. Alluring, yes, but also annoying, as in the case of residents of Port Shepstone in Kwazulu-Natal province’s complaints about Bury Stander’s spontaneous memorial, or the awful conundrum faced by residents of Newtown, Connecticut, wondering about how to deal with the material piled up after the spontaneous commemoration of the Sandy Hook massacre. This agony about the basic reality of emergent public commemorations affirms the significance of their very materiality as a key to understanding them as heritage place-makers.

To return to the growing pile of stones outside Nelson Mandela’s home, we can see links to the practise of leaving stones at the graveside of the deceased in Judaism. Closer to home, however, we can situate this spontaneous memorial to the indigenous African custom of the cairn, mounds of stones left by passers-by out of respect to the ancestors laid to rest at a particular place. It resonates with the stones that have been erected at South Africa’s official post-apartheid commemorative space, at Isivivane at Freedom Park in Pretoria. A symbolic burial ground, commemorating all those who died in the struggles for freedom and humanity, Isivivane was sacralised through the authentic indigenous religious knowledge provided by local experts. Sanusi Credo Mutwa, “visionary, historian, seer, prophet, sculptor, painter and unique individual with an uncanny ability to clearly understand the universe, the world and humanity” confirmed the significance of stone in African indigenous knowledge, as lithic registers of time immemorial, as vessels that networked ancient African knowledge.

Nelson Mandela’s connection to the site was more than theoretical. Tourists developed a close association between the figure and the site, often probing tour guides about whether it was being prepared as his final resting place. In that case, it appeared that a range of commemorative practises whether material or merely speculative where already taking place while Mandela was alive or, more specifically on the cusp of passing away. This suggested that there was a transformation in public perception in relation to his place in the South African past as heritage and his frailty as a mere mortal.

Beyond references to statue cults and grandiose representations of figures of esteem, through which the Mandela narrative has also been interpreted, it has also been circulated, recirculated, digitized, electrified, commodified, monetized, globalized and ultimately immortalized. Sjhoe … this excess of cultural and capitalist labour invested in cycling his image through public culture suggests that arguably, South Africans have been dwelling in what Ciraj Rassool has called the biographical complex, a play on Tony Bennet’s notion of the exhibitionary complex, a post-apartheid temporal dimension framed by his biography. Nevertheless, returning to the growing rockery outside Mandela’s home, commemorations such as these raise questions about his future place in the post-apartheid commemorative space and how we attend to the past that he so evocatively represents. What are appropriate means to commemorate him and his legacy, and who decides on what that is supposed to mean? More significantly, we can relate his failing health and the call to appreciate his mortality to the frailty of the romantic post-1994 narrative that he so powerfully represents. Perhaps in laying stones outside his home, South Africans are indeed learning to let go.

Further Reading

A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?

What she wore

The exhibition, ‘Men Lebsa Neber,’ features a staggering collection of the clothes and stories of rape survivors across Ethiopia.