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DAAD Cultures of Memory Colloquium

Author: Institutional Advancement: Aidan van den Heever & Nicklaus Kruger

The University of the Western Cape hosted an Interdisciplinary Colloquium on the Cultures of Memory - an intellectual comparison on memory cultures in South Africa and Rwanda supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

DAAD Cultures of Memory Colloquium Remembers The Past For A Better Future

“South Africa’s greatest commodity - bigger than diamonds and gold, more important than platinum - is our ‘miracle transition’ from Apartheid to Democracy.”

So said Dr Heidi Grunebaum, senior researcher at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), speaking at an Interdisciplinary Colloquium on the Cultures of Memory hosted by the University on 14 September 2017 - an intellectual comparison on cultural memory in South Africa and Rwanda.

Dr Grunebaum went on to say that the miracle is not yet complete, and more healing needs to take place before the country can truly move on. “The role of artists in post-conflict societies is absolutely crucial in helping to deal with anger and the feeling of grief in those affected areas and across the world.”

The colloquium was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the world’s largest funding organisation for the international exchange of students and researchers.

In 2016 an interdisciplinary group of researchers was formed within the Lecturers’ Network of DAAD. In bi-annual workshops, the group brings together researchers and public institutions concerned with memory cultures and post-conflict management in South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda and Germany.

UWC was a natural choice as a host for the colloquium, given the University’s historical contributions in fighting apartheid, and helping to forge a post-conflict nation.

Several speakers and contributors addressed various aspects and challenges of memory cultures, and of how to preserve painful memories without being overwhelmed by them.

Professor Rolf Annas from the German Language Department at Stellenbosch University started his presentation by speaking about memorial sites in the country which serve as sites of memory.

“My interest is with places of memory - cemeteries, for example, such as the big German memorial gravesite in Philippi, which provide a window into times past,” he said. “Other sites of memory include the Voortrekker monument and the Jan van Riebeeck monument on the Foreshore in Cape Town - and also Apartheid memorial sites like the Hector Pieterson Memorial or Heroes Park.”

Prof Annas explained that the tension between memory culture and the painful memories experienced by people past and present can lead to difficult situations, debate and sometimes disruption.

“We have seen problems with recent memorials such as with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015,” he noted, “where the movement damaged the statue and it was removed by the University of Cape Town after protests and debate.”

Where these tensions pop up, Prof Annas explained, the only way to deal with them is to Reinterpret, Remove or Move the controversial monuments.

DAAD’s Prof Rainer Schmidt, based at the School of Social, Political and Administration Sciences at the National University of Rwanda, said he participated in the commemoration week which was organized by his District (commemorations were organized by districts but also by National government). 

These commemoration weeks are a symbolic form of expressing anger and pain over historical events. “The commemoration weeks in Rwanda are very important, as they provide a way for the affected residents to find peace and remember their lost loved ones,” he said.

Tali Nates, the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), who has lectured internationally on holocaust education, genocide prevention, reconciliation and human rights, explained that the centre explores history, especially genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust.

The JHGC seeks to raise awareness of the evils of genocide, with a particular focus on the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; to serve as a memorial to the six million Jews who were killed as victims of Nazi Germany and the estimated 800,000 Tutsi victims of the Genocide in Rwanda, and to teach about the consequences of prejudice, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia and xenophobia, and the dangers of indifference, apathy, and silence to freedom and democracy.

“Holocaust education is important and plays a big role in post-apartheid healing,” she said. “We need to know how bad things can get, and how they get that way, and to understand how we can avoid that, and build a brighter future while still acknowledging the darker past.”

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