A tale of two museums | by Andre Marais

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-museumLandlocked Timbuktu in Mali and coastal Cape Town are 6,000 kilometres apart from one another but they are both under threat: one museum by a religious fundamentalism, the other by economics. Both museums are preserving important historical and heritage sites. Both are dealing with contentious outside forces which threaten to dissolve these spaces of memory and knowledge.

End of the road for District Six

The historic District Six Museum, on Cape Town’s Buitenkant Street faces closure if long-term funding is not secured soon. The 17-year-old museum tells the stories of communities that were forcibly removed from District Six, in the heart of the city, to outlying areas such as Mitchells Plain, Manenberg, Hanover Park, Langa and Bonteheuwel by the apartheid government in the 1960s.

For many, the museum has served as a meeting place where former residents and land claimants continue to discuss their return to the area. It has also hosted a number of important international events, most recently a sitting of the Russell Tribunal, which examined whether the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians constitutes the internationally-recognised crime of apartheid.

The District Six Museum is an independent community museum and operates autonomously, outside of the framework of the government’s Iziko museums. It is als o unique in that its birth was directly influenced by the anti-apartheid community struggles of the 1980s. Its engagement with former residents of District Six, as well as its educational projects are rooted in the pedagogical philosophy of Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. The Freirean influence can also be seen in the colourful permanent displays throughout the museum, which recreate the life of the neighbourhood, often in the words of residents themselves.

On the floor of the museum, a large street map is covered with first-person stories, drawing the visitor into a highly personal and multi-layered encounter with life at that time.

‘One of main aims here is to demystify history and contest notions of the truth,’ District Six Museum education officer Mandy Sanger explained. ‘We make the past problematic by steering away from the Great Man in History approach, towards the idea of a more collective, people-centred view of the past, where even the idea of transmitting knowledge is unpacked and interrogated — it is never static and permanent. Our approach is to resist the iconisation of the individual in isolation from the forces and movements of history.”

One of the most powerful aspects of the museum’s focus on the collective life of District Six is that it presents an alternative to the prevailing paradigm that is so dominant in popular South African hist ory today: it warns that the Mandela-isation of history — the lionising of a few select heroes — comes at the price of exclusion and distortion of the full richness of our struggle past.

‘We have always jealously protected our autonomy and our heritage practice, which we think is unique in the country,’ Sanger said.

The museum’s progressive work might be lost forever when its three-year funding cycle comes to an end soo n, according to the museum’s director, Bonny Bennett. ‘Two American funders that made large contributions, traditionally to arts and culture, have ended their support due to their change in focus – to HIV/Aids projects,’ she said.

‘We are in the process of looking for other funders and have already started to look at other ways to raise funds, such as developing philanthropy,’ she said.

Just as the apartheid regime’s attack on the memory of District Six gave impetus to a grassroots opposition movement and the establishment of the museum, a similar strategy is now required to save the museum from annihilation. The museum has already laid off some staff and is set to close its rich archives to both the public and researchers, which include interviews with District Six residents, videos, thousands of photographs, documents and news clippings.

A rescue plan is needed. The City of Cape Town has made a verbal commitment of R300,0 00 but without a longer term commitment, the museum’s operations will be seriously curbed.

Mali Islamists threaten Renaissance project

Seven years ago, then-president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki launched an ambitious plan to conserve 70,000 rare manuscripts in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu. The project, launched on Africa Day 2003, has led to the establishment of a new library and research centre – but the rich historical legacy of this city on the edge of the desert is now under grave threat from Islamist groups who seized control of northern Mali in March.

During Timbuktu’s Golden Ag e, the city was home to thousands of scholars writing on subjects ranging from mathematics to chemistry, from astronomy, to history, religion and law. The manuscripts that have been preserved — many of them richly decorated with gold leaf and bound with fine leather — offer a window on the daily life of subjects of the Mali empire. At the height of its influence, the city was an important trading post at West Africa’s gateway to the Sahara Desert and commerce with the Mediterranean and beyond.

Timbuktu’s scholars also imported and copied numerous texts from elsewhere, with the city’s three universities, private libraries and scores of Quranic schools holding a body of literature that would have been almost without equal anywhere in the world at the time.

The joint South African-Mali initiative to preserve this historical treasure and train young researchers, known as the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, was headed by University of Cape Town professor Shamil Jeppie, and has proven to be one of the more enduring legacies of Mbeki’s dream of an African Renaissance.

But today the city is under threat from the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which seized control of Timbuktu after ousting Tuareg nationalist rivals faction earlier this year. Reports from Mali say the Al Qaeda-affiliated group have attacked centuries-old mosques and the tombs of Sufi saints. Ansar Dine — whose name means ‘protectors of the faith’ — hold to a narrow and orthodox version of Islam, rejecting the myriad variations that have long coexisted side by side in this West African city.

‘It is a real loss for people in the town, the region and the continent,’ said Jeppie. ‘Timbuktu was the centre of Islamic learning, but Ansar Dine is ignorant of this. For them, there is only one book of learning and it’s the Qur’an. All this other Islamic learning is inconsequential to them.’

He was critical of the lack of outrage in South Africa at the destruction of heritage in Timbuktu. ‘It may indicate some of the media’s shallowness. They follow the politicians and the advertising circuit. Very little attention is paid to what is happening on the continent except when it is reported in the Western media,’ he said.

‘We can raise awareness about places and sites of historic significance in Africa, and especially those in danger, such as in Timbuktu but unfortunately, we cannot do much practically. The Timbuktu issue is part of a larger national crisis in Mali. They have to reach a consensus on how to resolve the internal crisis and then how to deal with the rebellion in the north.’

Jeppie suggested that the South African government should try to mediate a peaceful resolution to the Mali crisis, including addressing demands by the Tuareg for their own state.

‘Negotiations with the rebel factions must start. The extremist groups that have captured Timbuktu were part of this Tuareg rebellion which was partly “nationalist” until very recently,’ he said.

‘Ansar Dine benefitted from the confusion in the capital and were able to establish themselves in Timbuktu, but they are not popular and the people dislike them. How long they will survive, only time will tell…’

One can only hope the Islamists’ legacy is not the irreplaceable loss of centuries of recorded knowledge.

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla Issue #89