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Sites of memory. Sites of trauma. Sites of healing.
2015-04-01

Judge Albie Sachs – human rights activist and co-creator of South Africa’s constitution – presented the first Vice Chancellor’s Lecture on Trauma, Memory, and Representations of the Past on 26 March 2015 on the Bloemfontein Campus.

His lecture, ‘Sites of memory, sites of conscience’, forms part of a series of lectures that will focus on how the creative arts represent trauma and memory – and how these representations may ultimately pave the way to healing historical wounds. This series is incorporated into the five-year research project, led by Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Sites of memory and conscience – and healing

“Deep in solitary confinement, I read in the Bible: ‘the lion lay down with the lamb … swords will be beaten into ploughshares.’” And with these opening words, Judge Sachs took the audience on a wistful journey to the places in our country that ache from the past but are reaching for a better future at the same time.

Some of the sites of memory and conscience Judge Sachs discussed included the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf, District Six Museum, and the Red Location Museum. But perhaps most powerful of them all is Robben Island.

Robben Island

“The strength of Robben Island,” Judge Sachs said, “comes from its isolation. Its quietness speaks”. Former prisoners of the island now accompany visitors on their tours of the site, retelling their personal experiences. It was found that, the quieter the ex-prisoners imparted their stories, “the gentler and softer their memories; the more powerful the impact,” Judge Sachs remarked. Instead of anger and denouncement, this reverence provides a space for visitors’ own emotions to emerge. This intense and powerful site has become a living memory elevated into a place of healing.

After Judge Sachs visited the National Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein some years ago, he came to an acute realisation as he read the stories, experienced the grief, and saw the small relics that imprisoned commandoes from Ceylon and St Helena sculpted. “It’s so like us,” he thought, “our people on Robben Island making a saxophone out of seaweed, our people carving little things. It was so like us. It was another form of inhumanity to human beings in another period.”

The Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court next to the Old Fort Prison is also a profound site of trauma and healing. Bricks from the awaiting trial lock-up were built into the court chambers. “We don’t suppress it, we don’t say let’s move on. We acknowledge the pain of the past. We live in it, but we are not trapped in it. We South Africans are capable of transcending, of getting beyond it,” Judge Sachs said.

Transforming swords into ploughshares

Judge Sachs had great praise for Prof Gobodo-Madikizela’s research project on Trauma, Memory, and Representations of the Past. “You convert and transform the very swords, the very instruments, the very metal in our country. In a sense, you almost transform the very people and thoughts and dreams and fears and terrors into the ploughshares; into positivity.”