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How does South Africa deal with public art from its years of colonialism and apartheid? How do new monuments address fraught histories and commemorate heroes of the struggle? Across South Africa, statues commemorating figures such as Cecil Rhodes have provoked heated protests, while new works commemorating icons of the liberation struggle have also sometimes proved contentious. In this lively volume, Kim Miller, Brenda Schmahmann and an international group of contributors explore how works in the public domain in South Africa serve as a forum in which important debates about race, gender, identity and nationhood play out. Examining statues and memorials as well as performance, billboards, and other temporal modes of communication, the authors of these essays consider the implications of not only the exposure, but also erasure of events and icons from the public domain. Revealing how public visual expressions articulate histories and memories, they explore how such works may serve as a forum in which tensions surrounding race, gender, identity, or nationhood play out.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253029928
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/16/2017
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 358
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kim Miller is Associate Professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she also holds the Jane Oxford Keiter Professorship of women's and gender studies and art history. She is a research associate in the University of Johannesburg's Visual Identities in Art and Design research center. Miller's scholarship, which examines the relationship between visual culture, gender, and power in African arts, includes her forthcoming book, How Did They Dare? Women's Activism and the Work of Memory in South African Commemorative Art.  

Brenda Schmahmann is Professor and the South African Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture at the University of Johannesburg. She has written, edited, or coedited a number of volumes on South African art, the most recent of which are Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at Post-Apartheid Universities (2013) and The Keiskamma Art Project: Restoring Hope and LIvelihoods (2016).

Read an Excerpt


A Janus-Like Juncture: Reconciling Past and Present at the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park


The day should not be far off, when we shall have a people's shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honor with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom. Nelson Mandela, speech on Freedom Day, April 27, 1999

Freedom Park was planned as an inclusive national monument, reflecting Mandela's concept of a people's shrine and giving visual representation to the liberation of South Africa, honoring all those who had contributed to the country's hard-won democracy, in particular those who had resisted apartheid. Standing on a fifty-two-hectare site on the elevated Salvokop, east of the southern entrance to Pretoria (fig. 1.1), Freedom Park offers vistas that encapsulate something of the diverse history of the administrative capital, named after the Voortrekker hero Andries Pretorius, and erstwhile capital of the nineteenth-century Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. Across the city, one can see a distant view of the Union Buildings, erected on Meintjies Kop after Britain defeated Kruger's Afrikaner republic in the Anglo-Boer War and amalgamated the country's four regions into a union in 1910. It was a stately building to signify imperial authority but came to house changing administrative bodies, whether representing a British dominion or a republic and whether dominated by English, Afrikaans, or African leaders. It is an example of how old forms can be adapted for new purposes and, as the home to South Africa's African National Congress (ANC)-led government today, an embodiment of the symbolic appropriation of power.

But another edifice that does not lend itself easily to appropriation is also visible from Freedom Park. Opposite, on a hill to the west, stands the Voortrekker Monument (fig. 1.2), an edifice commemorating what came to be known as the Great Trek, when, from 1835, parties of Dutch speakers left the Cape Colony for the South African interior to escape British rule; their journeys have assumed iconic significance as the foundation myth of Afrikanerdom in nationalist discourses. Redolent with the ideologies of the deposed Afrikaner Nationalist regime, the Monument's persistent presence prompts questions about what the role of such monuments might be in a newly constituted South Africa. Is it possible to reconceptualize them? A novel interpretation of imagery at the Monument offered on a 1996 visit by Tokyo Sexwale, then premier of Gauteng province where Pretoria is located, implies this is possible. He cleverly inverted the meaning of Afrikaner symbols, suggesting, for example, that the Zulu assegais represented on the Monument's gates and in many scenes of confrontation on the historical frieze of the Hall of Heroes within did not have to be understood as a deterrent in the quest to bring white culture to the interior, as the Voortrekkers would have claimed. Instead, he proposed that the weapons were signifiers of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which in liberating South Africa had "opened up the path of civilisation" (Coombes 2003, 37).

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) responsible for the Voortrekker Monument and Nature Reserve, Major-General (Ret.) Gert Opperman, uncoupled the Monument from an Afrikaner Nationalist agenda differently. While not denying the history it represents, he argued in a paper for the African Congress on Peace through Tourism in 2007 in Uganda that the Monument was never intended to represent apartheid (Opperman 2007, 3), and he has also stated that it "had been misused for political purposes during the previous government as it had such a tremendous appeal to the Afrikaner nationalism [sic]" (Opperman 2011). Yet another repositioning to be discussed later — this time in 2011 — saw the Monument linked to Freedom Park in a symbolic act of reconciliation, officiated over by President Jacob Zuma. Coupled in a Janus-like juncture, one monument focused on South Africa's past, while the other used the past to look toward the future.

These differing readings of the Monument may seem disingenuous. However, they are informative in highlighting efforts to review outdated ideologies faced with new dispensations — and validate old monuments. While such monuments cannot readily be disassociated from their past, their significance can be rethought, reformed, and even reinvented. In examining the post-apartheid repositioning of the Voortrekker Monument and comparing it with Freedom Park, which was specifically built to represent post-apartheid principles, I aim to throw light on how public monuments in South Africa respond to political and cultural change.


When in the mid-1930s the Central People's Monuments Committee (Sentrale Volksmonumentekomittee [SVK]) chose a hill outside Pretoria as the site to memorialize the Voortrekkers of South Africa, it bypassed the claims of locations far more closely associated with the journeys of the early Afrikaner pioneers or Voortrekkers. Instead of Voortrekker battlefields or early settlements, the committee favored a place associated with Kruger's Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek: the choice embodied a desire to revive an independent Afrikaner state based on white supremacy. It was an aspiration already gaining traction by the time of the Monument's inauguration in 1949, for the National Party had won the South African elections the previous year and was soon to legislate the racist principles of apartheid that branded its more-than-forty continuous years in power. The building of the Monument undoubtedly played a part in the ascendancy of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Opened by the new prime minister D. F. Malan, it was also to be an insistent reminder that the country was under control of the Nationalists, who indeed declared it a republic in 1961 in fulfillment of the Afrikaner dream.

The location of the Monument had pragmatic as well as symbolic implications: situated at the South African capital of the north, it was accessible and highly visible. The design and scale of the edifice, too, was intended to capitalize on its prominent position: it was to be an arresting and powerful emblem, free of associations with British imperial architecture, its monolithic granite form signaling a new nationalism associated with Africa. Yet while the building referenced the grandeur of Great Zimbabwe and Egyptian architecture, it did not venerate the indigenous peoples of Africa but instead the white settlers who had imposed their culture on the subcontinent in the wake of the journeys of the Voortrekkers: it was an exhaustive story of settlement that purposefully excluded the British.

The lower hall houses an eternal flame of remembrance and a cenotaph for Piet Retief (fig. 1.3), the hero-martyr who, when trying to negotiate ownership of land in Natal, was put to death with his followers at the decree of the Zulu king Dingane. Retief was seen to personify the courage and steadfastness of all the Voortrekkers who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom. The Monument particularly commemorated the victory that avenged the death of Retief, when the Zulus were defeated at the Battle of Blood River by a small band of Voortrekkers on December 16, 1838, which they vowed to honor forever if they were successful. To mark this, the oculus in the Monument's overarching dome was designed so that the sun's rays fell on the cenotaph at noon on that day each year. It was on this Day of the Vow that the foundation stone was laid for the centenary in 1938 and the building inaugurated in 1949. The beam of light focused on the cenotaph's simple monolingual inscription, Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika (We for thee South Africa), embodying an exclusively Afrikaner patriotism, which barred the British national anthem and the use of English at both the 1938 and 1949 celebrations, despite South Africa being a dominion of the British Commonwealth and the government meeting the bulk of the costs for what was deemed a national monument.

But it is the defeat of African forces rather than the defiance of British rule that is portrayed in the ninety-two-meter historical frieze that surrounds the upper Hall of Heroes, from which visitors can look down on the cenotaph. The carved marble frieze with its life-size figures recounts major episodes of the history of the "Great Trek," as conceived by Afrikaner historians. It portrays not only the challenges oftraversing difficult territory but also confrontations with hordes of seminaked Africans depicted as committing acts of treachery and barbarism; against all odds, they are overcome by the resolve of the god-fearing Voortrekkers. The purity of the white marble of the frieze connotes both the superior moral position claimed by the Voortrekkers and the white race whose culture and civilization they carried with them to the hinterland. The belief that the Voortrekkers were a chosen race, predestined to establish a white Christian nation, was summed up by the architect, Gerard Moerdijk, for the Official Guide prepared after the inauguration. He compared the Monument to altars set up by Abraham "when he left Ur of the Chaldees to found a new state" (Moerdijk 1970, 32) and wrote of the massive bronze of the Voortrekker Mother and Children, commissioned from Anton van Wouw for the entrance to the Monument: "A place of honour has been given to the woman because it was she who ensured the success of the Great Trek and thus brought civilization into the interior of South Africa. She made everything possible by trekking with her husband. Her courage and enterprise founded a white civilization in the interior of the black continent" (Moerdijk 1970, 36). Without women, Moerdijk (1970, 31) wrote, "the Great Trek ... would have resolved itself into a reconnoitering [sic] expedition which may have established outposts or hunters camps but nothing more permanent."

The underlying agenda of the Monument, and particularly the frieze, was to demonstrate the Afrikaner's right to the country: "A people that have sacrificed so much blood and tears have left their mark on such a country, and therefore spiritually and physically that country belongs to them and their descendants" (Moerdijk 1970, 34).

In Prime Minister Malan's opening address at the 1949 inauguration, Voortrekker history translated into the principles of apartheid: "White Christian civilisation had to struggle for its existence against the attacks and the influences of an encircling barbarism, and where equality and the consequent forfeiture of white race purity and white supremacy could only have had the most fateful results for both sides" (Historical Record [1950], 20).


It is hardly surprising then, that after more than forty years of Nationalist rule came to an end in South Africa in the 1990s, it was confidently expected that the Voortrekker Monument — to so many an icon of apartheid oppression — would not survive the change. A History Workshop symposium at the University of the Witwatersrand in July 1992, titled "Myths, Monuments, Museums: New Premises?," chose a Penny Siopis image of a crowd toppling the Monument as its conference logo. Another design she had offered portrayed the Monument as a mere plinth for an enormous figure of a black laborer. In overturning Afrikaner hegemony in a less literal way than demolishing the edifice, this work recalled one of the first proposals for the monument — a mammoth statue of a Voortrekker by sculptor Coert Steynberg — replacing it with an image representing the workers the Nationalists had oppressed, a figure who thus reclaimed the land for his indigenous forebears.

A large charcoal from Diane Victor's Monuments of Mass Destruction series (fig. 1.4), Monument, also conjured up an early design, in this case a sectional drawing of the architecture by Moerdijk, well known through its publication in the many editions of the Monument's Official Guide. Victor's image of the building is not opened up to display the niceties of the architect's hieratic triple-level design, however, but to reveal a devastated building, its structure torn asunder. Isolated in the forecourt from the cascading rubble, Van Wouw's Voortrekker Mother and Children that stood for the procreation of white civilization in southern Africa lies in the forecourt overthrown.

Made in 2007, some fifteen years after Siopis's drawings, Victor's image could only have been conceived as symbolic of the nation's degeneration, not of any likely destruction, for by that date it was clear that there would be no implosion of the Voortrekker Monument. In 1993, the year after the History Workshop's logo predicted the fall of the Monument, a preemptive move by a group of Afrikaners had set up a Section 21 nonprofit company to ensure its survival. As a result, the institution was able to celebrate its half century undeterred in 1999 and, in an ironic twist, has become the refuge for items that have not survived political change. The Monument's storerooms now house images removed from display at venues controlled by the public works department, provincial administrations, parliament, and the defense force, such as portrait busts of historical Afrikaner figures, Verwoerd having the dubious honor of being the most prominent with no fewer than six images.

That the Monument has been perceived as a reliable repository may relate to its well-run administration, reconfigured in 2000 by an effective management team under CEO Opperman, which convinced the Department of Arts and Culture to maintain and increase its financial support." In 2002, a Heritage Foundation was also established, based at the Monument, "with the purpose of looking after endangered heritage objects, specifically those that the Afrikaans-speaking people of the population consider of value." Alongside the new management, the hard work of this nonprofit organization, very active in its fund-raising efforts, has ensured that the Monument remains a prominent feature of the landscape at the entrance to Pretoria. The Africanization of landmarks and city streets, even the renaming of the metropolitan area itself as Tshwane, has not diminished its dominance.

But physical survival alone would not have had significance had the Monument gradually become no more than a vacuous reminder of the past, a past, moreover, that everyone wanted to forget. That this has not happened has been facilitated by what Opperman (2007, 2) termed a policy of "aggressive marketing" that endorses Annie Coombes's (2003, 12) contention "that monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance." Various events have kept the Monument in the public eye through the media as well as through its literal presence. Succeeding in gaining support from Nelson Mandela is a key example. Marc Ross (2007, 246) notes that in 2000, Mandela was persuaded to write to potential donors encouraging support of the Monument. A more overt gesture of support that garnered considerable publicity was Mandela's acceptance of an invitation to speak on March 6, 2002, at the dedication of a statue to one of the heroes of the Anglo-Boer War, Danie Theron, installed at Fort Schanskop, part of the site under the control of the Voortrekker Monument. The organizers must have been jubilant that Mandela contributed so handsomely to their goal of reconciling previously opposed ideological positions. For he spoke admiringly of Theron's patriotism and the contribution of Afrikaners in building South Africa and referred to a "shared experience of fighting for one's freedom" against British colonial rule, which bound African and Afrikaner together "in a manner that is most profound" (Ross 2007, 246). Thus on this occasion, Mandela unexpectedly upheld Afrikaner settlers at the cost of the British and, most unusually, even used Afrikaans in his speech.

A policy of reconciliation has continued beyond Mandela's personal generosity. President Zuma, too, has undertaken conciliatory acts, all the more remarkable when, himself a Zulu, his relationship to the Monument with its focus on the Voortrekker defeat of the Zulus must surely seem more personal and confrontational. On the Day of Reconciliation, December 16, 2011, he opened an access road between Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument. The link, presented as a symbol of accord between two very different heritage institutions, was paralleled by the inauguration by Zuma of a bridge of reconciliation at another site under control of the Monument on the Day of Reconciliation in 2014, a year that had the added significance of marking the twentieth anniversary of democracy in South Africa. The bridge was installed between the old Afrikaner monument on the site of the Battle of Blood River (the Ncome River renamed because the waters were said to have run red with the blood of slain Zulu warriors) and the new complex on the other side of the Ncome, which honors Zulu involvement in the event.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Engaging with Public Art in South Africa, 1999–2015 / Kim Miller and Brenda Schmahmann

Part 1: Negotiating Difficult Histories
1. A Janus-like Juncture: Reconciling Past and Present at the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park / Elizabeth Rankin
2. A Thinking Stone and Some Pink Presidents: Negotiating Afrikaner Nationalist Monuments at the University of the Free State / Brenda Schmahmann
3. The Mirror and the Square—Old Ideological Conflicts in Motion: Church Square Slavery Memorial / Gavin Younge

Part 2: Defining and Redefining Heroes
4. Public Art as Political Crucible: Andries Botha's Shaka and Contested Symbols of Zulu Masculinity and Culture in Kwazulu-Natal / Liese van der Watt
5. Mandela's Walk and Biko's Ghosts: Public Art and the Politics of Memory in Port Elizabeth's City Center / Naomi Roux
6. Commemorating Solomon Mahlangu: The Making and Unmaking of a "Struggle" Icon / Gary Baines

Part 3: Erasures and Ruins
7. The Pain of Memory and the Violence of Erasure: Real and Figural Displays of Female Authority in the Public Sphere / Kim Miller
8. Transgressive Touch: Ruination, Public Feeling, and the Sunday Times Heritage Project / Duane Jethro

Part 4: Ephemeral Projects
9. Public Art, Troubling Tropes: An Unsettling Intervention in Cape Town/ Shannen Hill
10. Unsettling Ambivalences and Ambiguities in Mary Sibande's Long Live the Dead Queen Public Art Project / Leora Farber
11. Unsanctioned: The Inner-City Interventions of Julie Lovelace / Karen von Veh
12. Rage against the State: Political Funerals and Queer Visual Activism in Post-apartheid South Africa / Kylie Thomas
13. Tell-Tale Signs: Unsanctioned Graffiti Interventions in Post-apartheid Johannesburg / Matthew Ryan Smith

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