Archaeology dreaming: post-apartheid urban imaginaries and the bones

Archaeology dreaming: post-apartheid urban imaginaries and the bones
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  http://jsa.sagepub.com Journal of Social Archaeology DOI: 10.1177/1469605307067842 2007; 7; 3 Journal of Social Archaeology  Nick Shepherd of the Prestwich Street deadArchaeology dreaming: post-apartheid urban imaginaries and the bones http://jsa.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/1/3   The online version of this article can be found at:   Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com   can be found at: Journal of Social Archaeology Additional services and information for http://jsa.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:   http://jsa.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:   http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: http://jsa.sagepub.com/cgi/content/refs/7/1/3SAGE Journals Online and HighWire Press platforms): (this article cites 7 articles hosted on the Citations    © 2007 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.  at UNIV OF CAPE TOWN on May 13, 2008 http://jsa.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications (www.sagepublications.com)ISSN 1469-6053 Vol 7(1):3–28 DOI:10.1177/1469605307067842 Journal of Social Archaeology ARTICLE 3 Archaeology dreaming Post-apartheid urban imaginaries and the bones of thePrestwich Street dead  NICK SHEPHERD Centre for African Studies,University of Cape Town,South Africa ABSTRACT This article is concerned with the materiality of memory and identityin the post-colony,as mediated by the corporeal remains of thecolonial underclasses themselves. Prestwich Street is in a rapidlygentrifying part of Cape Town,close to the Waterfront,the city’s glitzyinternational zone. The accidental discovery of an early colonial burialsite in Prestwich Street in the course of construction activities in May2003,and its subsequent exhumation,became the occasion of afiercely contested public campaign. This pitted pro-exhumationheritage managers,archaeologists and property developers against analliance of community activists,spiritual leaders and First Nationsrepresentatives. The materiality of the site and its remains became akey point of focus for the working out of a range of forces andinterests in post-apartheid society,including the buried legacies of slavery and colonialism in the city,the memory of apartheid forcedremovals,and post-apartheid struggles over restitution and repre-sentation. I argue that,even as the heightened political contexts of theevents around Prestwich Street significantly determine the shape andnature of an emergent post-apartheid public sphere (on the one    © 2007 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.  at UNIV OF CAPE TOWN on May 13, 2008 http://jsa.sagepub.comDownloaded from   4 Journal of Social Archaeology 7(1) hand),on the other hand,its clashing epistemological and ontologicalconcerns challenge us to rethink and reformulate core disciplinarypractices and guiding ideas. Are the remains of the Prestwich Streetdead artefacts? Or are they ancestors? And under what conditionsmight they be both of these things? KEYWORDS heritage management ● human remains ● memory ● post-apartheid ● public history ‘All that is buried is not dead.’Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm ■ SIX FEET OF THE COUNTRY Ten years and more after the political transition of 1994,South Africanarchaeologists find themselves at the centre of a divisive and bitterlycontested public dispute. At stake is the fate of an early colonial burial sitein Prestwich Street,Green Point,a rapidly gentrifying district of Cape Townclose to the Waterfront,the city’s glitzy international zone. The PrestwichStreet exhumation has been a moment of truth for South African archae-ology. It is also – in my telling – a story of failure and of lost opportunities.That is,a failure in a quite specific sense on the part of the heritagemanagers in the newly reconstituted South African Heritage ResourcesAgency (SAHRA),and in a general sense on the part of the discipline of archaeology in South Africa. Archaeologists generally defended theexhumations in the name of a notion of instrumentalist science,distancedfrom broader issues of culture and society. They tended to be resentful of public intrusion into what they construed as a contractual relation with thedeveloper and a technical exercise in recovering the ‘facts in the ground’.For their part,SAHRA’s heritage managers showed little political will totake on entrenched interests in the city or creativity in acknowledging thetrauma of both the deep and more recent pasts. Instead,they opted for anarrow,and at times questionable,interpretation of the heritage legislation.Both archaeologists and key SAHRA officials acted with a concerted,attimes bewildering,disregard for broader discourses of restitution andreconciliation,as though archaeology takes place outside of history,or asthough the unrequited yearnings and energies of the past are an incon-venience to heritage managers that must be neutralized,instead of being    © 2007 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.  at UNIV OF CAPE TOWN on May 13, 2008 http://jsa.sagepub.comDownloaded from   5 Shepherd  Archaeology dreaming the very stuff and substance of the making of the new nation. But to saythis is to get ahead of myself ...Where to begin? At the moment when the demolition crew first en-countered human bones? Or at the end with the airy fantasy that is to be‘The Rockwell’,with its promise of carefree luxury? Perhaps it would bebetter to begin by sketching a field of implication,a ground of ideas,tothicken our sense of time and place. Very well then: In Nadine Gordimer’snovel The Conservationist  (Gordimer,1974),central place is given to twocharacters,the white Afrikaner and landowner,Mehring,and the body of an anonymous black man buried in a shallow grave on Mehring’s farm.Mehring is an industrialist who sells pig iron to the Japanese. His owner-ship of the farm is an act of romanticism,a return to the land,but also auseful tax write-off in years of failure. The black man is a murder victim,possibly from the black location on which the farm borders. His hasty burialhas been at the hands of the police,to save themselves the trouble ‘of yet another murder investigation connected with the African location’(Clingman,1986: 141).The figure of the black murder victim enters Mehring’s dreams tounsettle him,and render uncertain his possession of the farm. The murdervictim has been improperly buried: he lies face down; his mouth is stoppedwith earth. In this second life of the imagination he acquires a new kind of articulateness. In the end,a storm sweeping in from Mozambique disturbsthe body,‘bringing it to the surface to drive Mehring in terror and crisisfrom the farm,and to reclaim,in its representative capacity,the land’(p.141). This is made clear in the novel. Almost the very last words,referring to the body,are ‘he had come back’,an echo of the great rallyingcry of the African National Congress: ‘Afrika! Mayibuye!’ (‘Africa! May itcome back!’). Stephen Clingman,on whose sensitive reading of Gordimer’swork I have relied,begins his account with an epigraph taken from OliveSchreiner’s The Story of an African Farm : ‘All that is buried is not dead’.In his reading, The Conservationist  is part of the next great ‘signposting’ incolonial consciousness,following Schreiner. He calls the book ‘a history of the future’. What it foretells is the dissolution of the settler order. The Conservationist  established a powerful metaphor for the guilt of apartheid,the inevitable return of the truth of the past,and the impossi-bility of delaying forever the day of reckoning. With its themes of guilt andconfrontation,hidden and revealed truths,it provided a central andcompelling metaphor for the events of the 1990s,not least the institution-alized resurfacing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So far,sogood; but wait. The Conservationist  is based on an earlier,celebrated shortstory of Gordimer’s, Six Feet of the Country ,written in the early 1950s(Gordimer,1956). If The Conservationist  ends with the symbolic return of the body and the anticipated victory of the forces of African nationalism(even if it is not explained how this comes about),then the ending of the    © 2007 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.  at UNIV OF CAPE TOWN on May 13, 2008 http://jsa.sagepub.comDownloaded from   6 Journal of Social Archaeology 7(1) short story is far more ambiguous. A black Rhodesian travelling to SouthAfrica to look for work contracts pneumonia and dies on the farm of awhite couple outside Johannesburg. The local black farm-workingcommunity wishes to bury the body with due respect,but a series of macabre confusions ensues. First the body,after a post-mortem,is buriedwithout the consent of the health authorities. Then,when the black workerscollect £20 for an exhumation,the wrong body is returned sealed in a coffin.The deception is only uncovered when the dead man’s father,who hastravelled down for the funeral,complains that the body is too heavy to bethat of his son. Clingman writes: ‘The implication is plain: “six feet of thecountry”cannot be granted to blacks,even in death. South Africa is a whiteman’s country in which the basic dignities,in death as in life,are notafforded to blacks’ (1986: 140). The dead man’s father is fobbed off with anold suit,and the story ends ‘in a kind of liberal anguish,contemplating thisfact’ (p.140). Instead of closure we are left with a tangle of questions,further unfinished business.To Gordimer’s prophetic dream of incompletion we can add somecontemporary voices. The first is that of Achille Mbembe. Writing in aspecial issue of the journal Public Culture focused on Johannesburg,he says: Our sense of urban totality has been fractured – hence the juxtaposition of different images,memories of a past rejected or fantasized. Specific historicalobjects are ripped out of their context even as the state busily tries tomemorialize and museumize,to build new monuments and historiclandscapes that are supposed to bring together different fragments of thenation. (2004: 404) The second voice is that of Svetlana Boym ( The Future of Nostalgia ,2001):‘In cities in transition the porosity is particularly visible; it turns the whole city into an experimental art exhibit,a place of continuous impro-visations...’ (p.77).Porosity,continuous improvization,fractured urban experience,objectsripped from their contexts,fragments of the nation,the unquiet and re-surfaced dead,guilt,atonement,dreams and stratagems: a useful set of notions to take with us as we consider the case of the Prestwich Street dead. ■ TIME-LINE PRESTWICH STREET Green Point is a part of Cape Town strategically located between the centralbusiness district and the new waterfront development at Cape Town’sharbour. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it layoutside the formal boundaries of the settlement,a marginal zone which wasthe site of the gallows and a place of torture,situated on a prominent sand    © 2007 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.  at UNIV OF CAPE TOWN on May 13, 2008 http://jsa.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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