CCA Collegian Talk: Lynn Abrahams

7 Aug 2019 - 12:45

An analysis of Democratic South Africa’s National Estate

A CCA Collegian Talk by Lynn Abrahams.

The talk will take place at 1pm on Tuesday the 13th of August in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.

South Africa’s post-apartheid heritage legislation, and by implication the national estate, was crafted to address the imbalances of the past and to contribute to social cohesion and nation building. But within the past 25 years of democracy, we witnessed the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, controversy over Prestwich memorial, and protests for the preservation of Bo – Kaap, and the many voices from the historically oppressed calling on museums to reflect and tell their histories. All of these are indicative of a largely non-transformed heritage landscape that is in many ways still bears the legacies of colonialism and apartheid. Recently there has been a growing call, on a global level, for the decolonization of public representations and knowledge production relating to heritage and history. Amidst new heritage legislation and the restructuring of national heritage institutions, democratic South Africa continues to mirror the colonial and apartheid legacy, thus questioning whether it can fulfil its nation-building mandate. This evokes many questions as to why the heritage sector was unable to transform public representations of heritage and knowledge production. A critical reflection on the establishment of South Africa’s heritage institutions, its accompanying legislation and its mandate to identify, manage and conserve heritage legislation, leads me to believe that heritage was unable to transform because it is stuck in a Eurocentric concept of heritage management and conservation. Museums as custodians of heritage resources seem to be struggling to identify their role and place within a democratic and diverse society. Museums continue to engage in practices that suggest that they are trapped within old ways of ‘thinking and doing’. The inability to shift away from colonial museum processes and practices may render them irrelevant and unable to give true effect to their mandate of social cohesion and nation building.

A critical reflection of the establishment of South Africa’s heritage institutions, including museums as custodians of heritage objects, is necessary so that we can open up the discourse of perpetuating colonialism in the making of our democracy and the extent to which it impedes transformation of the heritage sector.

This proposed discussion will therefore critically reflect on the formation of South Africa’s national estate and the management thereof in pre and post-apartheid South Africa, thus creating a platform for engagement on these challenges and also simultaneously interrogating possible alternatives. The discussion will also focus on museums as custodians of national heritage resources (objects) and critically reflect on past and present museum process and practices and hopefully begin a discourse on the role of museums in the post-apartheid South Africa.

Lynn Abrahams is a social history curator at Iziko Museums of South Africa and a PHD Candidate at the University of South Africa.