Constitution Hill anchors us in the reality of our heritage
Last week, on Sunday, 12 September, I attended a discussion that covered a broad range of issues. At the heart was a discussion of what inclusion means in South Africa after having been such a divided country with a landscape quite literally carved up so that we were geographically living in the same country but living very separately and with a disproportionate allocation of resources among the populace.
This was, of course, brought into being by the 1913 Natives Land Act, which forced black South Africans to live in Bantustan homelands and used to exclude them from the political system.
The discussion was at the Constitution Hill precinct, a site that began as an instrument and tool of exclusion and subjugation, having started off as a prison for white people, commissioned by Paul Kruger, then later became a fort designed to keep the English from overthrowing the Afrikaner government, then went back to being a prison after the Afrikaners surrendered and throughout its history has seen many well-known prisoners walk through its doors, including Mahatma Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, Ellen Kuzwayo, Barbara Hogan and the Rivonia Treason Triallists.
The prison eventually closed down and had new life breathed into it by becoming the antithesis of what the site was founded on – it became the home of the Constitution and the Constitutional Court; South Africa’s greatest site for inclusion.
One of the points of discussion on the day was whether monuments such as the old fort and prison cells at Constitution Hill should be kept, considering their history of exclusion and oppression. Should they not just be torn down and built completely anew? Of what use were markers of oppression in our new 27-year-old South Africa, particularly those that evoke painful memories for some and feelings of guilt for others?
My opinion was that it is possible for sites of struggle and contestation to also be repurposed progressively in order for us to ensure that we do not forget our history, however uncomfortable and painful, because as the old adage goes, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. These sites serve to keep us anchored in the reality of our heritage as South Africans. Our heritage did not start in 1994 with the dawn of democracy, it goes much further and much deeper than that.
We cannot live a life of constant erasure because that invalidates the lived experiences of those who came before us but also would render us without a solid foundation on which to claim and understand our South Africanness. We are therefore duty-bound to stand in that heritage warts and all, but with a view to investing in the present for what will be a better future.
In order for memory to imprint, sometimes we need a physical scar that we can look at, touch and feel as reminders of past occurrences and how far we have come as a result of that scarring. Walking through and taking in the Constitutional Hill precinct serves as that, the heaviness of the history, but also the heaviness of the job of the Constitutional Court to hold us accountable to ourselves, and the kind of society we want to live in compels us to require more of ourselves.
Personally, there are two things that always strike me when I am in this space. The first is the deep love for our country and our people that the people who re-envisioned and actualised our inclusive Constitution must have had. The second is how we can personally take that and build on it in our daily lives in order to live purposefully for a life driven not just by the need to subsist but to contribute to our collective thriving.
What emotions do the names Paul Kruger, Mahatma Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, Ellen Kuzwayo, Barbara Hogan, Nelson Mandela, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Govan Mbeki, Bob Hepple, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel Bernstein, Walter Sisulu and James Kantor elicit within you? What would South Africa look like without the inclusion of these people in our memory and heritage? Memory is what allows us our heritage.
Sunday was also the 44th anniversary of the death of Bantu Steve Biko, who died before his 31st birthday after having been arrested and beaten to the point of a brain haemorrhage by apartheid policemen. Biko was the most recognisable leader of the black consciousness movement alongside Professor Barney Pityana and Mamphela Ramphele.
Describing black consciousness, Biko said: “So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.” He too is a part of our heritage.
Biko’s death and words echo that we must recognise in one another our humanity and remind us of what can happen if we forget.