Opening Address at the Omar Badsha Photographic exhibition by Jakes Gerwel, September 2001

We are a few days away from the celebration of one of our national holidays, Heritage Day. The opening of this exhibition of photographs by Omar Badsha and the accompanying launch of further book titles in the Social Identities South Africa Series are therefore quite timely and appropriate. The photographic exhibition as well as the books published in the series challenge us to think anew and in fresh ways about "identities" in South Africa and about what "heritage" means in our circumstances; what we imagine "heritage" to be in the oft-referred to "new South Africa".

There is a story to the decision to have Heritage Day as one of our national public holidays, and I am sure that one would not be divulging dangerous state secrets or seriously transgressing conventions of confidentiality in recounting that tale.

(After all: after what happened in the world last week where security was breached in a manner, on a scale, in locations and with effects that were almost unthinkable except in the most wildly imaginative fiction, we have some perspective on what constitutes dangerous breach of security. An innocuous recollection of a particular political debate will hopefully not offend.)

In the spirit of reconciliation post-Kempton Park and April 1994, there was a quest for inclusiveness also in the public holidays to be proclaimed by the new Government of National Unity. What is now Heritage Day started with the suggestion of King Chaka Day and in the generously spirited debates of those days it was eventually decided to remember the nation-building achievements of King Chaka by commemorating it as a day on which the diverse strands of our assumed common heritage were to be celebrated.

One subsequently gained the idea that Heritage Day became, and is celebrated as, one of the least focussed of our new public holidays. It was as if the reason behind and the intention with its proclamation as national public holiday were somehow lost. It does not carry the same rallying force as public holidays such as Human Rights' Day, Freedom Day, Workers' Day, Youth Day or National Women's Day.

Part reason for that may well be that we never had a clear idea as to what we intended with the day. Which in turn might have been due to a lack of theoretical clarity about the underlying concepts behind the general idea of celebrating our heritage as a collection of heritages.

A serious reflection on Heritage Day will mean revisiting more profoundly what in Congress politics used to be referred to as the "national question", interrogating afresh our conceptions of the nature and content of our nationhood, gaining clearer understanding what that constitutional precept of "unity within our diversity" theoretically and empirically entails. In short: examining, debating, defining and eventually commonly understanding social identities in changing South Africa.

In the published version of the photographs exhibited here, Omar Badsha, borrowing from John Berger, refers to the epistemological struggle of finding "new ways of seeing", of representing ourselves and about reinterpreting history, space and identity. These photographs, he writes, started as a diary, a tool to help him map his way through the racial maze created over a century of colonialism, apartheid and what he calls his own "Indianness".

People and physical space are the constituent themes of this collection of visual diary entries: people interacting within a particular piece of geography, people interacting with that space. It is, as you surely know, a photographic record of and conversation with and about the historic Grey Street area in Durban.

The interaction of people and space has been so much part of the formation or shaping of social identities, or the imaginings of social identities, in South Africa. The racial geography of apartheid continues to reverberate strongly in democratic South Africa, continuing to act as a forceful barrier to breaking out of old conceptions of identities, and finding Badsha's new ways of seeing beyond race.

The recognition of the force of apartheid geography is a salutary reminder of the materiality of the processes of identity formation and conception. I cannot point a finger and accuse as I was party, in fact continues to be partly so, to the propagation of the concept of the "rainbow nation", not necessarily offered as a rigorous tool of social analysis; rather as passionate exhortation to national unity. The concept, or image, was however, clearly born of the idealistic hopefulness and earnest wishing of our time of transition, rather than being based on hard analysis. We may wish to be one as in the slightly mixed metaphor of the rainbow, but to achieve that unity, or realignment of social identities, requires some hard attention to material matters.

The series of books on social identities in South Africa, under the general editorship of Abebe Zegeye, that tonight is being launched simultaneous with Omar Badsha's exhibition of photographs, makes a very significant start towards opening that debate in the new South Africa.

We must assume, as the editors and authors of this series do, that in some way the demise of apartheid and the first democratic elections of 1994 with the growing ethos of democratic rule would change identities - or more accurately conceptions of identity - among all citizens of South Africa.

This book series is an investigation of this situation, and represents the first comprehensive attempt to describe the emerging nature of these new identities.

The general introduction to the series states: "Although identity-producing changes in South African society are clearly related to factors such as increased social mobility, migration, access to jobs, access to training and education, and general reform in South Africa, the nature and influence of the identities being formed in response are as yet less defined. In an attempt to capture the character of the new social groupings the authors have relied on individuals’ personal reflections about how their lives have been changing since 1994: not only how society has changed around them, but also how they have reorganised their own lives, their networks and their self-conceptions to cope with the various changes."

The book series is part of the larger Social Identities in South Africa (SISA) project which endeavours to answer underlying questions such as: What new social identities have emerged in the post apartheid South Africa and how are these new social categories replacing or co-existing with old apartheid social categorisations? How is South African identity as a whole being changed by having to accommodate these new social identities?

Omar Badsha's book Imperial ghetto, the photographs of which are being exhibited here, forms part of that series. This combination in the series of intellectual analysis and narrative with the imaginative artistry of Badsha's work lends a particular wealth and texture to the exploration of the identity issues.

As the introduction notes, Badsha sets himself, and asks his audience, to undertake the difficult task of decolonising the imagination. Whereas the hard intellectual analysis serves to alert us to material and other constraints to our best wishes about nationhood, the vision of the artist keeps us awake to the creative possibilities in ourselves - the human ability to alter our imaginings.

It is my great honour to announce the launch of the book series in the Social Identities South Africa project and to declare open this exhibition by one of our leading photographers, Omar Badsha. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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