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‘Today I sense their absence more acutely than ever – but I also sense their presence.”
Miles Lerman delivered these poignant words at Belzec in his speech at the dedication of the memorial. He was referring to his mother, sister, her husband and three sons who were “consumed in the flames” of Belzec.
Belzec is the name of a small, inconspicuous town in south-east Poland. It is also the name of the Nazi death camp to which about 500 000 Jewish people were transported to be shot or gassed to death and thrown into mass burial pits over 10 months in 1942.
Since the advent of democracy, very few statues of struggle heroes and black leaders have been erected in Durban or countrywide.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Dr Zweli Mkhize announced in his State of the Province address that to honour the unsung heroes and heroines of our struggle for national liberation, statues, memorials, tombstones, monuments, walls of remembrance and statues would be erected.
The announcement is premised on the understanding that statues, memorials and monuments are reminders fallen heroes and heroines of our struggle for freedom may be gone, but are not forgotten.
Can memorials such as these contribute to the process of reconciliation by bridging the gap between survivors and perpetrators?
Can a memorial offer acknowledgement and consolation to victims? Rhoda Woets quotes Martha Minow in her article, “Comprehend the Incomprehensible”, which refers to the Memorial of the Rwanda Genocide, as saying: “Coming to know that one’s suffering is not solely a private experience, best forgotten, but instead an indictment of the social cataclysm, can permit individuals to move beyond trauma, hopelessness, numbness, and preoccupation with loss and injury.”
Put differently, statues and memorials can spawn a kind of national cathartic closure, especially to those who have lost their loved ones.
What do we understand about memorials and monuments? A memorial is a place of remembrance and honouring, a place for all to visit and reflect. Memorials and monuments are dedicated to people, events and ideas.
Author on the Holocaust Isabel Wollaston says memorials carry varying meanings and interpretations in James E Young’s “The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning”.
A memorial can function as a tombstone, to prevent repetition of violence, as a caveat to future generations, or as a nationalistic statement.
Andrew Butterfield, in his riveting article, “Monuments and Memories”, points out that monuments are the products of primary human needs, and they serve these needs in a way nothing else can.
People build monuments not because they do not know what else to do, but because there are wounds so deep only monuments will serve to honour them.
A monument is a personal and collective experience. A monument is one of the means by which an aggregate of individuals transforms itself into a community that feels bound together by a common moral experience and historical framework.
It is proof that the past is real, and still present. A monument is where the mythical and historical memory of a person or event comes to earth and, by adopting material form, lives on.
Monuments also provide an enduring physical demonstration of the fact of a person or event’s existence.
It marks a spot and it says who. And it says so forever. It is an object that serves as the locus of a person or group’s memories, and makes those memories tangible.
But why must monuments be built?
Sanford Levinson writes in his book, “Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies”, public monuments reflect “who within a particular society should be counted as a hero”.
“In ever-changing societies new groups enter the ambit of those with genuine political clout, with the consequent necessity of responding to the demands of these groups.”
Monuments normally celebrate a nation’s positive or heroic achievements.
Memorials provide spaces for people to contemplate and question near-incomprehensible events.
They are places of worship and mourning for those who have lost family members or friends.
They provide a context in which survivors can feel comfortable, revealing long-concealed truths about aspects of their experiences to their loved ones.
The Shobashobane, Trust Feed and Nquthu massacres immediately come to mind.
There have been divided opinions among people about the practice of building memorials.
Those who argue against the erection of memorials say it is awaste of money that could be better used elsewhere.
Some people are sceptical when a government erects a memorial, given that there is an inherent danger of the memorial representing and reflecting the ruling party’s political ideology. But who could fail to recognise the significant contributions made by struggle stalwarts such as Monty Naicker, Bishop Hurly, Dorothy Nyembe and others?
The statues would represent the values and principles – that sustained them in their struggles – to sacrifice everything for what they knew to be the truth.
In line with the transformation of our heritage resources – which, unfortunately, still lag behind in highlighting the success stories of those previously marginalised – a sizeable number of streets now bear the names of our struggle heroes and heroines.
The installation of the statues, monuments and memorials would serve as a poignant reminder that our freedom did not come cheap.
Timothy Luke in his book, “The National D-Day Memorial: Art, Empire, and Nationalism at an American Military Monument”, quotes Wilson’s comments on America’s D-Day Memorial.
Wilson says in his article, “Destiny… Has Always Been Up to Us”: “As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we are born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beach land on an unforgiving shore.
“Of course, this is the manifest purpose of the D-Day Memorial: to identify a monument in history, name the best among us, recount how they overcame their fears, whether dying on the beach or fighting on through VE day.”
In SA, the “shore” we have secured against great odds in 1994 is our precious freedom – or rather the end of apartheid.
It behoves us to mark the contours of this vast shore with statues, memorials and monuments that celebrate, commemorate and remind us of the heroes and heroines who wrested it from depths of despair.
* Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier, KZN. He writes in his personal capacity.