Meertens Ethnology Lecture by Prof. Dr Ciraj Rassool, Department of History, and African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape
South Africa’s Freedom Day has been celebrated on 27 April since 1995, commemorating the first democratic election held on that date in 1994. While this day might work as a South African equivalent of ‘independence day’, it is one of a new cluster of South African public holidays, which commemorate key events in a South African national history of resistance and reconciliation, and which are marshalled in the service of building a post-apartheid South African nation and citizenship. Freedom Day stands alongside Human Rights Day (21 March), Worker’s Day (1 May), Heritage Day (24 September), Youth Day (16 June), Women’s Day (9 August) and Day of Reconciliation (16 December) as the commemorative days through which the heritage of the new nation is proclaimed and enshrined in national memory.
And as in all workings of memory, these days have involved forms of forgetting and rearrangements of the past, with the apartheid and resistance meanings of many of these days obscured by the demands of reconciliation and nation building. While these public holidays sought to inaugurate a particular memory as part of new national heritage, they have also been marshalled in the production of notions of citizenship and personhood. Heritage Day or Youth Day rituals of assembly, special theming, speeches and the presidential address in the football stadium are geared towards imparting lessons of history and often have the effect of producing citizenship based on quiescence and passivity. And this citizenship is being created in relation to the constitution of a biographic order in public life, in which biographies of leaders, as lessons of history, have not only been made to dominate all facets of public history portrayals, they have also seeped into the rituals of everyday life.
As we seek to comprehend these new forms of power and authority in the name of democracy, in which the commemoration of national days occurs in relation to other modes of public gathering and assembly, such as political funerals and even sporting events, we need to recognise that these have not been without contestation. Sometimes they have become spaces for spontaneous criticism amid speeches by leaders bent on asserting history lessons. Nonetheless, alternative commemorations have also occurred outside the dominant narrations and without attention to the expected rituals, such as through the work of the District Six Museum and the Prestwich Place Project, which have commemorated slave emancipation outside official commemorative frameworks.
Ciraj Rassool is Professor at the Department of History, and African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies, University of the Western Cape.