Preserving the history of struggle
By Stephen Robson
PERTH — History in South Africa had reflected the "story of 'great' white men", Gordon Metz, a member of the African National Congress' department of the arts and culture, said, addressing the second Harold Peden Memorial Lecture on November 24. Metz explained that the aim of Mayibuye Centre in Johannesburg, of which he is curator, is to tell "the story of daily struggle of ordinary men and women".
The lecture was organised by the Perth branch of the Society for the Study of Labour History and presented in conjunction with the Indian Ocean conference at the Point Walter conference centre.
The Mayibuye Centre seeks to recover neglected aspects of South African history and to encourage creativity in the processes of change and reconstruction in that country. Under the apartheid regime, museums presented, at best, a very "sanitised" version of history. Of 500 museums in South Africa, only two had black curators. The Mayibuye Centre has a training program to challenge this aspect.
Metz, who was forced into exile in 1978, returning to South Africa in 1991, explained that there was a period of adjustment taking place as "we shift from a resistance role to one of the new government".
The centre does not yet receive government funding. It has to rely on its own fundraising capacity. Because these were secondary aspects to bigger questions, "The little story still has to be sorted out", Metz said. The centre has collected 60,000 images from the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as 2000 films. Material from the notorious Robben Island is being collected, including letters sent to the prisoners. It has produced 52 publications so far.
With half of the population in South Africa functionally illiterate, oral history took on crucial importance, Metz explained. Photographs taken by Eli Weinberg have been preserved. Weinberg, who was eventually banned from taking photographs by the apartheid regime, was an active unionist and supporter of the liberation movement. Many of his photographs chronicle the liberation struggle.
Steps are being taken to acquire overseas material on the anti-apartheid struggle. Many boxes have already been received from Germany. An agreement has been reached with the National Museum of Australia on a joint project to provide material from the anti-apartheid struggle in Australia.
Harold Peden was a member of the Communist Party from the 1940s and was president of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union until his retirement in 1985. Peden was also a long-time member of the state executive of the WA Trades and Labor Council.