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South Africa
Culture - Arts | Society | Politics

Clouds over attempts to reconcile with the past

afrol News / IRIN, 15 December - When South African President Thabo Mbeki on Saturday dedicates a memorial wall inscribed with the names of those who were killed during the country's violent history, it will open a national debate on whether to include those who died for the cause of apartheid.

The wall is located in Freedom Park, being built outside the capital, Pretoria, and will pay homage to the hundreds of thousands of people who died during the eight major struggles that shaped the country's history.

The issue of whether apartheid government supporters who lost their lives during the liberation struggle should be included on the memorial has only come to the fore in the last few months, according to Freedom Park's Heritage Manager, Ramsey Abrahams, but because of the sensitivity of the matter, a course of action on the thorny issue has yet to be decided.

"Obviously, we are looking at the concept of reconciliation here, so it is a debate the nation needs to have. It is such a sensitive and complex issue, when viewed through the prism of reconciliation, that it must be debated nationally before any decision is taken on what to do," Abrahams said. "But there is space for 136,000 names on the wall, so if it is deemed appropriate that supporters of apartheid should be remembered as part of the reconciliatory process, then we have the ability to accommodate them."

Visitors will find the names of 75,000 people killed during numerous wars, including the two World Wars and the liberation struggle. Those remembered for their part in shaping the country's past range from British and Afrikaner soldiers who died during the two the South African Wars fought between 1880 and 1902, to San Bushmen and Zulu warriors who lost their lives in the struggle for land.

Despite the reconciliatory nature of the Freedom Park project, what visitors will not find as they walk along the memorial that winds its way around an amphitheatre are the names of people who died defending apartheid.

According to the Freedom Park Trust (FPT), the state body overseeing the development, the heritage park is the product of the processes engaged in by the South African government since 1994 to create and foster a new national consciousness of the common legacy that binds the people of South Africa.

The concept was born out of requests by civil society, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), academics and various political interest groups that monuments and museums be created to commemorate historic events.

"Launched officially on 1 June 2000, the Freedom Park serves as a response to the need identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for symbolic reparation of past conflicts in the history of South Africa. The Freedom Park Trust was established in 2001 to develop this heritage project," FPT spokesperson Ilse Posselt said in a press release.

"The foundation of the Freedom Park is thus deeply rooted in our nation's reconciliation process, as well as the advancement of the various rights entrenched in the constitution from a heritage perspective."

The construction of the wall is designed to help facilitate the process of reconciliation, but individuals listed on it must first be vetted by various verification committees, including political organisations and civil interest groups, to ensure that they legitimately belong on the memorial.

However, according to the Khulumani Support Group, an NGO that supports victims of gross human rights abuses during the reign of the apartheid government were not the only significant grouping absent from the memorial wall.

Khulumani's Pierre Le Roux maintained that the FPT had failed to recognise the ordinary South Africans who lost their lives during the liberation struggle, and said most of the people to be remembered on the Wall of Names were either members of the ruling African National Congress, or members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing.

"We represent tens of thousands of ordinary people; the relatives of many South Africans whose lives were torn apart by the violence that festered under the apartheid regime. But it has been our experience that the FPT approach to compiling the names for the wall has been anything but inclusive when it comes to public participation," he maintained.

"Last March we provided the FPT with 1,171 names of ordinary people who lost their lives during the liberation struggle, but I doubt you will find a large number of these on the Wall of Names, because they [the FPT] have not engaged with us," Le Roux added.

When asked whether ordinary people had indeed been ignored by the FPT researchers who compiled the lists of names, Abrahams insisted this was not the case. "You will find the names of people from all walks of life on the wall; it is not just those who had political affiliations, or ex-combatants. We have to withhold a large number of people from the liberation struggle section though, because we must ensure accuracy.

"Backgrounds need to be looked into and details checked out. So, although 75,000 names will appear on the wall, we have checked around 96,000 people who have been put forward. There have been problems engaging with the Khulumani group but we have made progress there, too, recently.

"Also, some people may misunderstand the idea of the Wall of Names. There is limited space, so not every legitimate person will appear on the wall, but those that don't will go into a large database that can be accessed at Freedom Park."

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