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Where history is a victor's tale

South Africa's new black government is reexamining the long-held Afrikaner version of the country's history.

By Kate DunnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1998



CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

For a small sheep-ranching town, Calvinia has a big museum. It takes up half a block on the main street of this one-horse town located on the high South African plains. Dedicated to Calvinia's pioneering Afrikaner forefathers, the two-story museum contains the usual cherished detritus of white colonial life: daguerreotypes and stiff-necked linen shirts, bone china and farm implements.

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Only one artifact relates to South Africa's black majority: a photo of four Africans. Under it is the caption: "The murderer, with his family." Says Calvin Smith, Calvinia's new black mayor, "When visitors come, I take them to the grave of our freedom fighter, Abraham Esau," who fought English and Afrikaner colonists. "He was a great man, but you won't find anything about him in the museum."

Apartheid ended officially four years ago, but across South Africa, the icons of the country's past point exclusively to the white experience. None of the established museums celebrate, for example, Albert Luthuli, South Africa's first black Nobel Peace Prize laureate; the achievements of Xhosa farmers or Venda artists; the Zulus side in the Battle of Blood River; or the beauty of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC).

When he launched the Robben Island Museum last year, former inmate Nelson Mandela scorched the country's museums and monuments with criticism that 97 percent of them continue to glorify "mainly white and colonial history." "Even the small glimpse of black history in the other [3 percent] is largely fixed in the grip of racist and other stereotypes," President Mandela said. He seemed to have in mind the two national museums that bookend the lovely, leafy avenue that runs in front of the country's newly multiracial parliament.

The South African Cultural Museum is housed in a former slave lodge, yet until recently it contained not a single exhibit on slavery. Instead, its displays carried the same old European clothes, china, and farm implements. Quite separate are the anthropological exhibits relating to black Africans and the country's most ancient residents, the Bushmen; these are housed in the South African Museum, lumped in with other wild curiosities - birds, fish, and animals.

An irate Mandela asked: "Can we afford exhibitions in our museums depicting any of our people as lesser human beings, sometimes in natural history museums usually reserved for the depiction of animals?"

This month, the government introduced its Cultural Institutions Bill, under which several old-time museums will be amalgamated and rationalized, releasing funds for use in a number of Legacy projects to celebrate the African struggle against colonization and apartheid. That means a Mandela museum in the president's home district of Umtata, more money for Robben Island, and monuments to the Zulus slaughtered by Afrikaners at Blood River.

Not that the new government always gets it right, either. In a 1996 speech, deputy president Thabo Mbeki lamented the supposed extinction of the Southern Bushmen, known as the Khoi and the San. The extinction theory was espoused by apartheid promoters for decades.

But, in fact, the KhoiSan population is alive, if not well. Their numbers were decimated by disease, genocide, and ethnocide earlier this century, and the tattered remnants became invisible when the apartheid government reclassified these aboriginals as mixed-race coloreds in the 1950s. Now, a Canadian sociolinguist, Nigel Crawhall, working with the South African San Institute, has located several hundred people speaking the ancient Bushman languages.

"They're not hard to find," Mr. Crawhall said. "All I had to do was get in my car, drive north, two hours, get out and say, 'Hi, my name's Nigel.' They are in very predictable places."

Bushman pride is gaining momentum in the country and, as a result, museums are under attack.

In 1911, in the apparently complacent expectation that the Bushmen would soon be extinct, South African Museum curators made plaster casts of the bodies of 12 Bushmen for use in a still-life known as a diorama. That diorama is still on display. There is pressure to move it to the Cultural Museum, to be housed with artifacts from the white population, and to use it to celebrate the continued existence of the country's first people, despite attempts to exterminate them.

As dismal as the current situation is, "times are changing," according to Musa Xulu, South Africa's deputy director-general for arts and culture. One catalyst has been the tremendous interest among war history buffs from Commonwealth countries in next year's centenary of the Anglo-Boer war.