Pretoria: Where “The Past Isn’t Dead. It Isn’t Even Past.” (Apologies to Faulkner)

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“Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid’s symbols–the Union building, the seat of apartheid’s parliament, the statues of Afrikaner heroes, prison cells, and buildings of torture where many opponents of apartheid, black and white, had died or disappeared or mysteriously committed suicide. Pretoria was the heart and soul of apartheid, and I had no desire to set foot there. But now, as I returned to the prison eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa.”

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night

Writing about her prison interviews with apartheid agent Eugene de Kock (aka ‘Prime Evil’), Gobodo-Madikizela reflects upon the city of Pretoria and its troubled past. As a black South African who not only endured apartheid, but then went to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Gobodo-Madikizela’s relation to the city of Pretoria is, to say the least, complex. As she notes, Mandela’s post-apartheid administration reappropriated the city in order to transform the Union buildings, and, by extension, Pretoria itself from a site of painful memories to one of a hopeful future. As one of the three capitals of South Africa, then, Pretoria holds for Gobodo-Madikizela a symbolic meaning in the black South African imaginary.

While walking around Pretoria this past week, I admit that the city’s monuments to the past in juxtaposition with the omnipresent image of Nelson Mandela plastered along streets and billboards served as a constant reminder of my tourist position. This is not my history, and, as such, what am I capitalizing upon when I visit these monuments? Is it responsible to appreciate the aesthetics while ignoring the political? Obviously not. For me, the aesthetic appreciation derives from the discomfort in knowing what these monuments, what this capital stood for in the not so distant past and, more importantly, how this is changing.

Change, however, takes time, and while it has been nearly twenty years since Mandela was elected, Pretoria faces severe problems with crime as a result of a staggering 40% unemployment rate. As one walks back from the Union buildings–or, for that matter, walks anywhere in the city–the fact that nearly every building is fenced with electric barbed wire reminds the pedestrian of present realities stemming from past atrocities.

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