10.00  Heritage as Dispossession: A Critical Legal Ethnography of the Postcolony. A South African Case Study

9:00, lundi 6 juin 2016 (30 minutes)

The year 2015 marks an extraordinary year in the reinvigoration of a public heritage discourse in South Africa. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign gave expression to new articulations of critical heritage as social justice by an emergent post-apartheid generation. These articulations have emphasized continuities of dispossession between historical Black suffering and the intersections of disadvantage in the postcolony today. I wish to extend this critique by directing attention to the opportunities and limitations of the South African National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 (the Act), and the subjects and institutions it empowers to identify, interpret, and manage the heritage resources of a “new” nation. Conceived in the moment after SA’s advent to liberal democratic governance, the Act is remarkable in its explicit attention to the “redress” and “healing” of historical injustices as contained within its preamble. In this paper, I wish to put forward a thesis articulating a legal bifurcation in the semiotic structure of the Act’s form—a bifurcation between ethics and technics. As the preambular ethical commitments give charge to new claims of democratic citizenship, the techno-economic rationalities of institutional reasoning contained in the body of the Act divest such commitment to fiduciary bureaucracies of governance. Within this socio-legal constitution, ethical reasoning, by and large the recourse of vulnerable groups, is necessarily constructed as a predisposition to nonlegal, nonexpert, and thus inadequate testimony. Through such means, heritage is conceived as an instrument of dispossession, where meaningful agency continues to be denied to Black and minority communities, even as they appear to be celebrated.  

In the second part of the paper, I intend to demonstrate one of the material effects of this bifurcation through the radical engagements of a heritage community with legal tools of heritage governance in South Africa. The neighbourhood of Bo-Kaap in central Cape Town self-identifies as the only multi-lingual and multi-ethnic working class community to have survived the systematic forced removals of black communities from the city centre throughout the twentieth century. The unique historic townscape and cultural form of the neighbourhood has received local, national, and global recognition. However, an authorized heritage discourse, ideologically constructed and legitimated within Apartheid heritage institutions, continues to influence contemporary formal assessments of historical value. This ideology narrativised a romantic settler nationalism that emphasized cultural harmony between social groups simultaneously as the power relations between them were obscured. 

My case study is located within the Apartheid buffer strip that separated Bo-Kaap from the formally designated “White City.” The buffer strip was an uninhabitable zone of social distance, economic exclusion, and cultural containment that formed both a legal and spatial boundary. The contemporary marginalization of the material testimony of Apartheid on Bo-Kaap, both through discourse as well as major contemporary urban redevelopment, effectively erases the modern history of urban and social violence that has deeply affected the community, abdicates responsibility for redress, and re-inscribes a paradox of exclusionary historical romanticism within a national liberation narrative largely based on the belief of having surpassed it. Attending to the boundary condition of the buffer strip as heritage disrupts and co-implicates ethical responsibility in the logic of technics, and complicates the distinction between legal and social orders, between recognition (remembering) and reconciliation (forgetting), and between centre and margin that is characteristic of many postcolonial perspectives.

University of Cape Town

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