Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa

This post was contributed by Sarah Emily Duff, who graduated with a PhD in History from Birkbeck, in March 2011. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She writes about food, history, and culture at Tangerine and Cinnamon.

On Friday 9 December, Birkbeck hosted the latest workshop in the Societies of Southern Africa: History, Culture, and Society seminar series. The series is organised by Wayne Dooling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Rebekah Lee from Goldsmiths, and Birkbeck’s Hilary Sapire, who chaired Friday’s session.

The seminars focus on new research, and are a space for rethinking familiar themes within the scholarship on southern Africa. I presented a paper at the first workshop held to launch the series at SOAS in December 2009. Titled ‘Identities and Imaginaries in South Africa’, the workshop considered the construction of national, regional, and raced identities in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, the series has dealt with cities, urbanisation, and the anti-apartheid struggle. Friday’s workshop, ‘Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa’, was the first to broaden its scope beyond southern Africa. Each of the four papers focused on the politics of commemoration in four African nations, and the similarities between the examples were often more striking than the differences.

The first speaker was Rachel Ibreck from the University of Limerick. Her paper, ‘The Time of Mourning: The Politics of Commemorating the Tutsi Genocide’, looked at the ways in which the official annual mourning period for the 1997 Rwandan genocide, 7 to 13 April, is used and contested by a variety of groups both within and without Rwanda. For the Rwandan state, it is an opportunity to assert his legitimacy as a stable, democratic, and orderly government. State ceremonies emphasise unity and reconciliation, even if they privilege one memory of the genocide over others. But at regional ceremonies, the week is used to instil order and discipline in the provinces. For many Hutus, particularly those who live abroad, this is a week where non-participation is an act of resistance: a refusal to buy in to official narratives of remembrance which elide the ruling party’s involvement in the genocide.

Ibreck proved convincingly the extent to which remembrance and memorialisation are deeply political acts. This was picked up in the paper presented by Birkbeck’s Annie Coombes. In ‘Learning from the Lari Massacre(s): Object Lessons from Contemporary Kenya’, Coombes examines the peace museum movement in Kenya. She focused on the community peace museum in Lari, a town which witnessed a double massacre in 1953. Following an attack by Mau Mau supporters, members of the Home Guard exacted a bloody revenge. This event – which for so long divided this community – is now being memorialised in the Lari peace museum, which is advised by a committee of veterans from both sides of the conflict. It seeks to rewrite a local history which takes into account both Mau Mau and Home Guard perspectives, and also to remember those who died in the conflict.

The peace museums, including the one in Lari, are curated by a generation of young men in their thirties, who have no memory of the Mau Mau, and whose allegiances either to the Mau Mau or the National Guard are very thin. This generational shift in the understanding of conflict and its implications for memorialisation, was particularly evident in the paper presented by Tom Lodge, also from Limerick. ‘Sharpeville and Memory’, which was based partly on his new book on the Sharpeville Massacre, explored how the massacre was remembered at two key moments: in 1984, during the township revolt which helped to end apartheid, and in post-1994 South Africa.

In 1960, police opened fire on a large crowd of people who had marched to the Sharpeville police station in protest at having to carry pass books. The massacre was then deliberately forgotten by a generation of traumatised victims of apartheid violence. But in 1984, a younger group of activists with hazy memories of the original massacre organised a march on the route of the 1960 protest, thus causing the original massacre to be remembered again – although commemorations of Sharpeville had long been a standard event on the calendar of the British-based anti-apartheid movement. But since then, Sharpeville – a protest organised by the rival Pan Africanist Congress – has been remembered by the African National Congress as simply emblematic of the unequal struggle between black South Africans and the vicious apartheid state – something particularly well demonstrated by the abstract, de-contextualised memorial to the massacre.

JoAnne McGregor from University College London ended the workshop with a reflection on violence and memory under the post-2009 government in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF heavily polices which traumas may be popularly remembered, and which should be forgotten – and McGregor noted that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change had done little to establish its own narrative of remembrance, to celebrate its supporters who had died in the name of its cause. She concluded with the important point that for memorialisation to occur, a receptive and supportive political context needs to be in place: it is not in Zimbabwe, but it is in Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda. Even so, the interests of the state will shape the way in which trauma is remembered: in Rwanda, remembrance ceremonies are used for overtly political purposes; in South Africa, Sharpeville, a non-ANC event, has been shorn of its political particularities. Remembrance is always political.

I was struck by two other points too. Firstly, the extent to which generational change effects how and why events are remembered: in Kenya, a younger generation want to understand the fissures which divide their communities; in South Africa in the mid-1980s, the Sharpeville massacre was a useful beacon for young activists. Secondly, memorialisation is as global as it is local. In the case of Rwanda, the genocide is remembered differently by Hutus living in Europe, and who use the official period of mourning to highlight alleged atrocities perpetuated by the ruling party. In the case of South Africa, the memory of Sharpeville was kept alive by activists abroad. It remains to be seen how the vast Zimbabwean diaspora will influence the memorialisation of Mugabe’s oppressive rule.

Tom Lodge, Hilary Sapire, Rachel Ibreck, and Annie Coombes

Tom Lodge, Hilary Sapire, Rachel Ibreck, and Annie Coombes


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