Commodification mars South Africa’s history

Business Day Live | Matthew Partridge:


What would you pay for a piece of South African history? More to the point, what precisely does a piece of South African history look like? If Cape Town-based artist Chris Swift is to be believed, you can own a piece of South African history by purchasing a fragment of the fence that used to stand around Robben Island for as little as $300. If you would like a bigger piece, you can pay up to $2,600.

Marc Alexander’s portraits are on sale with pieces of Robben Island fence. Photo: Michaela Irving

And what do you get for your hard-earned dollar? Along with your piece of fence — which is security tagged and verified by KPMG auditors— you also get a certificate of authenticity along with a print of Nelson Mandela done by the artist Marc Alexander. The entire ensemble comes framed with the piece of the fence sitting comfortably in its own mount beneath the benevolently smiling face of Madiba.

Swift came across the fencing while on a trip to Robben Island in 2009 — this historic prison island, which once held as prisoners some of the most revered leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, is now a thriving tourist destination for visitors to Cape Town. Seeing hundreds of square metres of the fence being loaded into a skip, Swift moved swiftly into negotiations to take possession of the fence, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But what is this actually saying about how we approach and commodify South African history? Swift exhibited the fence in 2010 at the Spier contemporary art exhibition, where he piled the square pieces on top of each other to form a giant pillar which he titled (with no irony intended) Nelson’s Column.

Sensing commerce in the vast quantity of fencing that he had accumulated, Swift established RIACT, the Robben Island Art Co Trust, and today you can even own a set of silver-coated cufflinks or some bespoke jewellery made from fragments of that once discarded fence.

Swift will quickly tell you that this is not a selfish or blatantly expedient endeavour, and that some of the proceeds go back into community projects. Thus, according to his website, the original fence, “instead of rusting away, is helping to create jobs and move SA towards its bright future”. What kind of jobs isn’t exactly clear except maybe for the framers, and the high-powered marketing team behind the project, and of course the auditors at KPMG.

With the passing of Mandela last year, which saw the country and the world go into collective mourning, the father of South African democracy has also passed into iconic status and images of him have been plentiful. In such a visually saturated culture one has to occasionally separate the wheat from the chaff by questioning the intentions behind such reproductions.

In the case of the Swift and Alexander collaboration, it is difficult to see anything of artistic or symbolic value in what most will regard as crass opportunism masquerading as social enterprise. It illustrates that not even history is free from commodification, with Mandela’s likeness being used as a conceit to tug on the most tender of South African heart strings.

Mandela’s incarceration is one of the factors that propelled him to an almost saint-like status in the imagination of a country desperate to reimagine and redefine itself after apartheid. What we have here is a tacky (even unforgivable) attempt to package such history that reveals a gross misunderstanding of the nuances that it entails.

That the individual pieces of fence being sold come replete with their own security tags goes a long way to illustrate just how far off this project is in its sensitivity to a history that cannot, and should not be, bought or sold.


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