N. L. l. Ramoupi u.a. (Hg.): Robben Island Rainbow Dreams: The Making of Democratic South Africa’s First National Heritage Institution

Robben Island Rainbow Dreams. The Making of Democratic South Africa’s First National Heritage Institution

Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi; Solani, Noel; Odendaal, André; Khwezi ka Mpumlwana
415 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

Robben Island – north of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa – is a place with a tragic and brutal history.* Since the end of the seventeenth century, the small island had been used by Dutch and English colonialists as a site for political prisoners (and in between also as a leper colony). Moreover, under the South African apartheid regime in 1961 the island was turned into a maximum-security prison for the top leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), including anti-apartheid icons such as Harry Gwala, Nelson R. Mandela, Walter Sisulu (all ANC), and Robert Sobukwe (PAC). The political prison was closed in 1991, and in September 1997 the island was established as a national heritage institution, including the Robben Island Museum (RIM) (https://www.robben-island.org.za). Because of its formative influence on many prisoners, in the ANC’s remembrance the prison is referred to as the “university” of the “liberation struggle”.

The making of the post-apartheid state’s first national heritage site is the topic of an anthology edited by Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, Noel Solani, André Odendaal, and Khwezi ka Mpumlwana. Ramoupi is an associate professor of history in the Department of History at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. Solani is the director of the DITSONG: The National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria. Odendaal is the vice-chancellor’s writer-in-residence and an honorary professor in history and heritage studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where in 1992 he started and directed the pioneering Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture in South Africa (https://mayibuyearchives.org). And Mpumlwana is the director of the Zenalia Consulting, which focuses on South African heritage economics, and the cofounder of the Liberation Heritage Route initiative.

This anthology provides the foundations for an institutional memory of the RIM, divided into 5 parts and totalling 37 chapters. In part one, mainly written by Odendaal, the making of the RIM is recalled. This section also comprises a few historic documents, such as the opening address of the RIM on 24 September 1997 by the then South African president Nelson R. Mandela. In part two, the educational and dialogue management side of the RIM is discussed, including reflections on the importance of the Mayibuye Centre at the UWC as a centre for showcasing unique multimedia collections on the anti-apartheid resistance and the liberation struggle, mainly based on the material collected by the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF). In part three, “Exhibitions and Memory‑Making Process in a Sacred Space”, the with former prison inmates and politics of memoralization is at the fore. And in part four, “Voices and Debates from Within”, current debates around the RIM are presented. This part includes a critical reflection on the political and institutional crisis that developed in 2002, when the director of the museum resigned under the circumstances that are described by the editors as a “pilot case for state capture” – that is to say, the systematic corruption and mismanagement of state institutions – which has become a trademark of the ANC’s rule since 2009.1

This volume presents one of the few important and critical reflections on the politics of memorialization after the end of apartheid in South Africa – it also gives a voice to black heritage workers and intellectuals. Written from a behind-the-scenes perspective, the editors manage to not only provide important background details but also contextualize this information in current debates about the nature of the ANC’s government project and the state of democracy in the post-apartheid society. As South Africa is preparing for the next general elections (scheduled for 29 May 2024 and, for the first time, with a chance that the ANC may lose its absolute majority), Robben Island Rainbow Dreams speaks to the legacy of the “liberation struggle” and the way it is memoralized in the country. For many intellectuals in South Africa, and also for the editors of this volume, the country’s constitution is still the most important foundation on which to build a new society – despite the rampant corruption and obvious inability of the ruling ANC to master the country’s destiny. Over the past 30 years, the ANC’s 1994 election slogan, “A better life for all”, has been clearly exposed as a promise that the party has been unable, or unwilling, to fulfil.

* The author of this review co-organized the first international academic conference to be hosted on Robben Island after apartheid, on 25–26 September 1997 (with Dr Hans-Georg Schleicher) – one day after Nelson R. Mandela had opened the RIM.

1 See Ulf Engel, State Capture in South Africa, in: Comparativ 31 (2021) 2, pp. 267–275.

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