The Future of the Past: Public History in Post-Apartheid South Africa


This is an attempt to investigate how the past is presented to the youth of South Africa, within the context of education; which versions of the past are selected as being important to remember, how it is intended they should remember it, and how this social education affects the collective memory and shape of the South African nation.


Insight into this topic can be gained from studying the development of museums, monuments, public heritage projects, personal testimonies and the role of history in school education, all of which are designed to present particular aspects of South African history with the intention of creating a public, collective memory.


With each new generation the past slips further away, but through educating the youth about this collective past, it is hoped that a new national identity can be formed in the post-apartheid era.

This article examines how the youth of today are being given memories of a past that they never knew, to create a new, united nation. I suggest that the focus of this public memory is too narrow.

Education & public memory

Teachers play an important role in educating youth about the past. In the construction of a public memory, history teachers are critical to the process. During the apartheid era, the history taught in schools was ideologically and politically connected to the ruling regime, and its main purpose was to legitimize the racial hierarchy of society.


However, after the fall of apartheid came a time of educational reform. Central to this was a need to change the history curriculum taught in schools; the official history needed to be deconstructed, and in its place a new syllabus to replace the old inaccuracies and racist propaganda. 

 In 1995, a new interim history syllabus was implemented as a quick fix for replacing the old one. No new history textbooks were provided to replace the apartheid-era ones, but teachers were given greater freedom to choose from a list of suggested topics, and were encouraged to create the course content themselves, which had been unthinkable before.


Dryden-Peterson and Sieborger explain that for teachers, “sharing one’s own experience became a substitute for the printed history resources that were lacking in schools”. In this way, the use of teachers’ own testimonies in classrooms has become instrumental in exposing students to memories of a past that they would otherwise not know.

Although all schools in South Africa are not equal, whether due to resources, location, or student diversity, “testimony emerged as an important pedagogic tool for history and as a potentially critical means to developing a vision of South Africa based on democracy and non-racialism among the next generation”.


Personal narratives such as teachers’ testimonies can be an effective way for the youth to make connections to the past, but there is a need for them to be exposed to different points of view, from multiple sources, so that they are given a balanced view of history.

There is a danger that if teachers’ testimonies are presented as the history, then “…it could promote hatred and provocation rather than creating space for deliberation of democracy and non-racialism”.

Truth and Reconciliation

Without a variety of sources, there is the risk that South African society, as a whole, will be forgetting unfavorable aspects of the past and remembering only the more favorable. In this way, parallels can be drawn between teachers’ testimonies and the public process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which can be viewed as another example of the construction of a public memory in South Africa, through personal testimonies.


The testimonies of those who participated in the TRC process were made public, broadcast on television, and recorded in a written report. The word truth in the name of the process itself implies that these testimonies are to be accepted as the truth, the history, without question.

However, the TRC only presented two extreme points of view: testimonies from victims and from perpetrators. There were no testimonies from people who were from neither extreme position, people of all races, who lived their lives throughout the apartheid era, experiencing all the everyday problems of living within the separatist system.


The result was that the testimonies were about murders and death and police brutality; where were the stories of everyday life, stories that could describe the smaller details of apartheid life, details that perhaps the youth of today could more easily relate to or understand?

The historical value of the TRC report can be questioned, in which testimonies are “presented uncritically as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, just as ‘official’ history once was”. Similarly, there is criticism of the TRC for “its tendency to elide memory and truth and to equate forensic with personal evidence”.

In The Future of the Past in South Africa: On the Legacy of the TRC, Daniel Herwitz explains that one of the key aims of the TRC was “to gather evidence of atrocity in the name of the nation”.


As part of this evidence, the TRC report lists the names of all the victims of “gross human rights violations” as a “compendium” which, Herwitz argues, is also “a memorial, not unlike the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. by Maya Lin, whose stark litany of the dead is a chronology of loss reduced to names and years”.

In effect, the list of names is almost meaningless without any context: just a roll call of those who died, and not really an effective memorial to assist in the creation of a meaningful collective memory.

The concept of memorializing the past in order for it to be remembered by future generations who will have no such memories of those events is problematic.


However, it is one of the goals in South Africa to use memorials as a way of creating a collective, public memory to unite all its citizens. Herwitz defines public memory as “…the creation of remembrance largely without actual memory, of remembrance with a different kind and quality of memory”.

He explains that this kind of memory is very much like creating a monument, an attempt to keep chosen narratives of the past in the minds of generations to come.

The TRC was not just about creating a united memory of the past, however. It can also be viewed as a transitional tool, to guide the entire population of South Africa through “…a potentially chaotic break with the past, and the setting of a new agenda for the future nation” and like physical memorials, the TRC was a way of instilling a sense of continuity through a time of great change.


In this way, the TRC is an example of a public process that can “…institute a regime of remembrance for the future, about the past”. In effect, the youth are being instructed to never “forget” what happened in South Africa, and to use the TRC report as hard evidence of apartheid; the intention is for other people’s testimonies to become part of the collective memory of each new generation.

Indeed, Herwitz summarizes the legacy of the TRC as “…a perpetual duty of remembrance”.


The Legacy Committee

Public heritage projects are another way to control how the youth of South Africa are educated about aspects of their nation’s history.

Meskell and Scheermeyer argue “South Africans are being educated through various cultural productions about what is best remembered and what is best to forget”.

Such “productions” are managed by the Legacy Committee, which established the Legacy Project in 1996, to “…approve and facilitate the setting up of new monuments, museums…plaques, outdoor artworks, history trails and other symbolic representations”.


One of the earliest projects managed by the Legacy Committee was the establishment of the Robben Island Museum, which can be examined as a case study to explore the construction of a new public memory through the development of museums that often use sources such as “…individual testimonies and public memories” rather than relying on the traditional method of displaying historical objects.

Robben Island

Indeed, the biggest exhibition at the museum is based on one person’s testimony: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In the public arena, Robben Island, once one of the most famous prisons in the world, has now “…embarked on another life as the centerpiece of the “new” South Africa”.


Robben Island represents different things to different people, with many possible ways to interpret the history of the island, but which version of history is being presented by the island’s museum, and hence which historical emphasis is being accepted as the prescribed history of the island for South Africa’s youth?

Early discussions on the future of the island following the collapse of apartheid took place involving groups including the ANC, ex-prisoners, the Anglican Church, the Cape Provincial Administration (CPA), the Regional Development Advisory Committee and Peace Visions (a non-government organization).

The CPA expressed its desire that the prison ought to be “turned into an anti-apartheid museum for the protection of its history and the artifacts of the prisoners”, and ex-prisoners involved in the debate said that they did not want it “turned into a shrine that (would) commemorate the atrocities of the past”.


The Anglican Church agreed that there should be an apartheid museum on the island but that it shouldn’t focus on “the atrocities of the past”, and instead should be “a place with a positive view of the future”.

In effect, the groups taking part in these discussions decided upon which version of history would be presented by the new museum, and how the island would be perceived by future generations.

They agreed that “the more recent history of the liberation struggle should be a priority” in the narratives represented, as opposed to a longer, more diverse history of the island.

There was concern at the time that the ANC “had highjacked the island narrative as the narrative of the liberation struggle”, placing emphasis on the role of the ANC in history and ignoring other organizations, perhaps for political gain, especially as Mandela was still the president at that time.


A spokesperson from the South African Museum, Patricia Davison, comments: “Almost inevitably, Nelson Mandela became synonymous with Robben Island and symbolic of the liberation struggle”, which implies that many other participants and aspects of the history of the island are being ignored or overshadowed.

Indeed, Mandela’s story is so powerful that it is often hard to see beyond his narrative to view the wider history of apartheid in South Africa.

Without hearing from multiple voices, it will be difficult for the youth of South Africa to get the complete story of Robben Island and the complex struggle against apartheid.


The museum’s mission is “to help build a new sense of national identity” through “nurturing responsible members of civil society with a keen sense of human rights culture”. This is clearly aimed at inspiring the youth of today to become socially and culturally responsible adults of the future, through presenting them with selected narratives from history. 

African National Congress

There has been continued criticism about nature of heritage projects in post-apartheid South Africa, due to the “overwhelming emphasis upon the ANC” and the struggle against apartheid, instead of “uncovering the necessary social complexities of archaeological, pre-colonial and colonial histories”, all of which are needed to give a fuller picture of the past to South African youth.

It seems that history in South Africa may have been re-branded to the extent that much of the past has been forgotten, and that through not fully exploring, and presenting, these histories, there is the danger that “a post-1994 society might simply concentrate on (history’s) end product, apartheid, as an aberration”.


The ANC played a large role in the final days of apartheid, and led the country into a new era, but it is not the only part of history that deserves attention. Other aspects of the past, “these divergent histories” also need to have “an influential position within the nation’s collective memory” in heritage and public history development projects so that all perspectives from the past can be recognized, before the South African nation becomes not only forgiving but also a forgetful society.


Museums and heritage projects are not a new phenomenon; they existed during the era of apartheid, when many were labeled Declared Cultural Institutions (DCIs) and were funded by the state.

HDR 3086@121110 - South Africa - Pretoria - Voortrekker Monument [Compressor]-X2.jpg

During apartheid, these institutions were heralded as “a major national and regional asset” even though most of them were only located in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town and so were unaccessible to many people; “in the apartheid era, museums did not form part of the cultural life of the black majority”.

Furthermore, the actual collections and exhibitions in these museums demonstrated overwhelming bias towards European and colonial culture. In the post-apartheid era, these institutions have been expected to change, to reflect the “new” nation as a whole.

One such institution is the South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town, which, like other museums, has been undergoing a “…process of constructing and contesting social memory”.


The staff there are expected to “re-examine purpose, mission, audience, collection (and) education” in order to reflect and represent the diversity of South Africa. In the past, SANG was used by the government to promote racial hierarchy by only showing colonial and European art, and now it is being used by the current democracy to promote the idea of the new united South Africa. McGee explains that

Recasting cultural heritage, rewriting, re-examining, and recontextualising social memory are not merely theoretical or academic dispositions in South Africa; rather, the gathering of history, and the interpreting of culture are significant matters of democratization and nation building.

The youth of South Africa are influenced by national institutions such as museums, so if SANG only exhibits European art, the message the youth receive is that “African art is not important”, and similarly in history museums if the focus is on colonial history then the message is that pre-colonial Africa is not worthy of study, and this would, once again, highlight the divisions among South African society.


Social Memory

In this way, museums and heritage projects are tools for establishing a new social memory that can unite the nation. McGee concludes that in contemporary South Africa “the recasting of social memory within heritage institutions is far more than a theoretical gesture; it is a social, political, and national imperative”. The purpose of this “social memory” can be viewed as an attempt to solve

…the difficult challenge of building a new South African national identity that incorporates the negative aspects of its tumultuous history and, at the same time, leaves the way open for a positive and inclusive national future.

By presenting the youth with a particular notion of history, it is hoped that the past will influence the future, through social remembering of national events.

Nanda writes that institutions such as SANG and the Robben Island Museum are seen “as powerful tools for educating the young” because they “bear witness to peoples’ inhumanity to others so it will never be forgotten and never repeated”.


I have attempted to show that the youth in contemporary South Africa are being taught about the past in various ways, both implicitly and explicitly, through history classes in schools, public processes of testimony such as the TRC, the creation of memorials and national heritage projects such as museums.

Through examining how history is presented in these different ways, I can assess how the past is being interpreted for the consumption of the new generations who have no real memories of the apartheid era.

I think that there is a clear emphasis on the ANC’s role in the downfall of apartheid and the move forward to democracy, and an overwhelming sense that the past is being used to bring closure to an era that was defined by division, whilst simultaneously attempting to use this representation of the past to unite the new nation through acts of public memory.

I believe that there is a very real risk that through such emphasis, other aspects of history, for example narratives from colonial, pre-colonial and even archaeological pre-history, will be ignored and forgotten in favor of “more useful” history; a history that serves a political and social purpose rather than these wider histories and would give the youth a greater context for understanding and knowing their country.

South African history and the collective memory should not just be focused on the ANC and the struggle against apartheid; even though these narratives are momentous in the changes that they bought about, the country has a rich and diverse history that goes far beyond that sole narrative, with other stories, people and events that deserve attention.

The example of Robben Island illustrates this; currently the history presented there is all about the ANC; but the island existed before the ANC and therefore other narratives could and should be told.

The use of testimony in classrooms by history teachers is, I think, a useful pedagogical tool for making the past relevant to young people’s lives, but I believe they should be exposed to a wider range of testimonies from people who have had different experiences, not just stories told by their teachers.

Similarly, there is a danger in referring to the TRC report as the truth when there are many other deserving testimonies that were not heard as part of that process.

The role and use of history in South Africa is a complex issue, but I believe that examining youth offers insights into the future of society, “(of) power and agency: public, national, and domestic spaces and identities, and their articulation and disjunctures; memory, history, and a sense of change”.

I will find it interesting to see how representations of the past in South Africa today will affect the sense of history in the future, which acts of memorializing will still be carried out, and which new histories will be re-discovered and bought to the public’s attention.

In the future, I hope that the collective memory will cover wider historical narratives than it does at the present time.

(Matthew Ruddle, 2009)


Coombes, Annie E. History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Dryden-Peterson, Sarah and Rob Sieborger. “Teachers as memory makers: Testimony in 
the making of a new history in South Africa.” International Journal ofEducational Development Vol. 26, Issue 4 (2006): Academic Search Premier, Web 4 Nov. 2009.

Durham, Deborah. “Youth and the Social Imagination in Africa: Introduction to Parts 1and 2.” Anthropology Quarterly. Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 2000). JSTOR, 5 Nov. 2009.

Herwitz, Daniel. “The Future of the Past in South Africa: On the Legacy of the TRC”.Social Research Vol. 72, No. 3 (2005): JSTOR, Web 5 Nov. 2009.

Khwezi ka Mpumlwana, Gerard Corsane, Juanita Pastor-Makhurane and Ciraj Rassool. “Inclusion and the power of representation: South African museums and thecultural politics of social transformation”. In Museums, Society, Inequality, editedby Richard Sandell. New York, Routledge, 2002.

McGee, Julie L. “Restructuring South African Museums: Reality and Rhetoric within Cape Town”. In New Museum Theory and Practice, edited by Janet Marstine.Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Meskell, Lynn and Colette Scheermeyer. “Heritage as Therapy”. Journal of MaterialCulture Vol 13, Issue 2 (2008). Academic Search Premier, Web 4 Nov. 2009.

Nanda, Serena. “South African Museums and the Creation of a New National Identity.”Museum Anthropologist Vol. 106, No. 2 (2004). 40+ Expanded Academic ASAP.Web 5 Nov. 2009.

Sieborger, Rob. “History and the emerging nation: the South African experience.” International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research. Vol. 1, No.1 (2000).

Slessor, Catherine. “Memory and struggle: an apartheid museum that celebrates theordinary is South Africa’s latest attempt to come to terms with its past.” TheArchitectural Review 219.1311 (2006). 40+ Expanded Academic ASAP. Web 5 Nov. 2009.

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