Signposts to our past

As part of its centenary celebrations, the Sunday Times will install memorials around the country to some of the century’s newsmakers

12 March 2006 - 02:00 By CHARLOTTE BAUER
GIRL FROM LANGA: Sculptor Angus Taylor with bronze casting for his Brenda Fassie sculpture, commissioned for the Sunday Times Heritage Project.
GIRL FROM LANGA: Sculptor Angus Taylor with bronze casting for his Brenda Fassie sculpture, commissioned for the Sunday Times Heritage Project.
Image: Raymond Preston. 16/02/06. © SUNDAY TIMES

ON THURSDAY, a life-size bronze statue of Brenda Fassie, commissioned by the Sunday Times from the artist Angus Taylor, was unveiled at the Newtown Cultural Precinct in Johannesburg. At the time of her death on May 9 2004, the phenomenon known as MaBrrr was South Africa's top-selling local artist. She may not have been everyone's idea of a national role model, but there's no denying Fassie's status as a stellar newsmaker - and the legacy of her music lives on.

ON THURSDAY, a life-size bronze statue of Brenda Fassie, commissioned by the Sunday Times from the artist Angus Taylor, was unveiled at the Newtown Cultural Precinct in Johannesburg. At the time of her death on May 9 2004, the phenomenon known as MaBrrr was South Africa's top-selling local artist. She may not have been everyone's idea of a national role model, but there's no denying Fassie's status as a stellar newsmaker - and the legacy of her music lives on.

This is why she was chosen as the poster girl for the Sunday Times centenary heritage project which launched this week.

The Sunday Times turned 100 on February 4 this year. As part of our anniversary celebrations and under the baton of the editor, Mondli Makhanya, we set out to build a number of public, permanent memorials around the country. They would record some of the significant moments in our history, on the spot where they happened, and recognise the remarkable people who stood at their heart. Our start date was 1906, the year the Sunday Times first appeared.

Some of these stories and 'characters' are well known, others less so. Some may conjure memories of pain, others of pride
Sunday Times Heritage Project

The stories would be selected on the strength of their news value then, and their resonance now. We went for a news mix and our memorials range from sport to the arts, politics, religion, science and society. Our budget would allow for the erection of 40 memorials during 2006, 10 each in Johannesburg, Durban, the Eastern Cape and Cape Town. Local artists would be commissioned to render the stories as public artworks on the appropriate sites, to be accompanied by plaques briefly describing the action - what happened there. Viewers of these street-corner memorials would be directed to find out more about the story in the Sunday Times and on its website.

In choosing 40 stories to show and tell during 2006, we are, of course, inviting criticism. How did we select them? Why did we leave out important stuff? How long will it take to forget the past?

This project is a beginning. The stories and people we have chosen to commemorate are not the only ones, and our way is not the only way. We know that it will not please everyone. How could it?

Our first 10 Johannesburg story memorials are being installed now. They include the first pass burning, led by Mahatma Gandhi at the Hamidia Mosque in 1908; Raymond Dart's discovery in 1924 of the Taung skull, proving that humankind began in Africa; the birth of one of South Africa's oldest and most famous football clubs, Orlando Pirates, in 1939; and the role of an extraordinary 17-year-old, Tsietsi Mashinini, in the Soweto uprising of 1976.

We are planning our next 30 public memorials around the country, identifying and developing stories that shine a light on a singular moment in 100 years of news time which, subtly or significantly, helped to shape the heart lines and fault lines of the diverse "us".

Some of these stories and "characters" are well known, others less so. Some may conjure memories of pain, others of pride. Some may inspire in the viewer merely a yelp of interest: "I didn't know that!"

These are a few of the ideas we're working on around the country:

On February 21 1917 the SS Mendi, a World War One troopship carrying black South African soldiers from Cape Town to Le Havre, was sunk in the English channel, killing more than 600 troops.

There is a place on the East London docks named "Latimer's landing" where, on December 22 1938, Marjorie Courtney-Latimer pulled a strange-looking fish from a trawler's morning catch. It turned out to be a coelacanth, thought to have been extinct for 70 million years.

The Eastern Cape township of Mdantsane has produced more boxing champions than any other place on the planet - 13 world champions and 27 South African champions, just since 1990, and they all fought their first major titles at the Sisa Dukashe Stadium.

On Cape Town's Greenmarket Square, the city's last illegal march under apartheid's rule got under way on September 2 1989. Police attacked the crowd with batons and a water canon loaded with purple dye. It became known as the Purple Rain march and the soaked protestors, whose sense of humour remained intact, predicted that soon the "purple shall govern".

One of our most challenging Johannesburg memorials tells a story of death in detention. The finished artwork will be mounted at what used to be John Vorster Square, the police station where, between 1971 and 1990, seven men died in custody on the notorious 10th floor.

Today, the station has been transformed into Johannesburg Central Police Station. Deciding how to remember the terrible things that once happened there without offending or upsetting those who work there now, but also without sanitising them, gave us sleepless nights.

What should the artwork look like? Bodies falling out of windows? Doves and rainbows? Grimly explicit or garishly sentimental? Neither seemed appropriate. And anyway, it was not exclusively the Sunday Times's decision. We may be experienced storytellers - hence our unique narrative approach to the building of memorials - but the Sunday Times is not the project's only stakeholder.

The overarching concept came from the Sunday Times. The idea was, in the editor's words, to "give something back to the communities that have shaped and sustained this newspaper and the times we have lived in".

But ever since our small, dedicated heritage team was assembled last September, we have consulted - and continue to consult - dozens of individuals, communities and organisations without whose blessings and buy-in this amazing journey would not be on any map.

We work with the towns and cities along the project's route. We have had the support of many organisations, notably Business & Arts South Africa, which, under the patronage of President Thabo Mbeki, has helped to put up descriptive text plaques alongside the artworks.

In Johannesburg, where our journey began, we started by knocking on the mayor's door. Amos Masondo was immediately enthusiastic and his leadership, coupled with the unflagging support and guidance of the city's Arts, Culture and Heritage Department, helped us on our way.

Still, thinking back to that first meeting, when the mayor rattled off lists of the many role players we would need to discuss the project with - ward councillors, communities, officials, committees, tenants of buildings, roadworks, sewerage, lights, water - the path ahead seemed to grow into a mountain before our ignorant eyes. My "we're heritage virgins" quip wasn't such a joke after all.

We have met many extraordinary people since then, not least the families of some of those featured in our stories. This part of the journey is particularly delicate, and we have walked it as respectfully as we could. We decided early on that if the families or immediate communities of one of our chosen stories were resistant to what we were doing, we would change it, or, in a worst-case scenario, walk away.

In some cases we couldn't make the stories "stick" for purely technical or practical reasons: we'd find out that the X-marks-the-spot site was about to be torn down; or it was wasn't physically accessible, or it was already "marked" with memorials.

We have been deeply moved by the positive feedback from the emotional stakeholders who journey with us - the widows, daughters and brothers whose loved ones shaped the social topography of this country in their respective fields of passion and endeavour.

It has shown us that even when a country wishes to bury traumatic memories, they are never erased. The people with close personal ties to some of our featured stories have wanted the public to engage with their experiences, for better or worse, and they have been generous about how we choose to tell them.

This has allowed our commissioned artists a fairly free hand in interpreting the briefs, to make the artworks in their own style and chosen materials. Our main concern regarding the artworks themselves was that they be as time- and vandal-proof as possible. Still, a few more sleepless nights have been spent recalling chopped up bronzes and daubed statues. But perhaps if we had been experienced in the sticky, sensitive realm of "tangible heritage" we might have fled before anything could happen.

From Bhambatha's rebellion in 1906 to Brenda Fassie's legacy, the Sunday Times Heritage Project hopes to create thoughtful, adventurous signposts to our past that will be around to tell us a good story long after the candles have been blown out on our 100th birthday cake.

- Bauer is director of the Sunday Times Heritage Project

This article was first published on Sunday, 12 March 2006 

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