The issues of landlessness, poverty and under development that continue to plague the Eastern Cape cannot be understood fully without reference to the wars of dispossession and resistance that played out in the province in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
This was the assertion made by National Heritage Council chief executive officer Adv Sonwabile Mancotywa at the opening of documentary photographer Cedric Nunn’s Unsettled: 100 Years of War exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) Bird Street Art Gallery on Saturday night, 27 May.
“How can one confront the burning issues of the land question without reference to those wars?” he asked the near capacity-filled gallery hall.
“But more than that, the wars had a broader national and even international significance in that … they played a crucial role in the development of racial attitudes and notions of white supremacy that still challenge us today.”
Nunn’s exhibition is a quiet, yet complex series of photographic works that deals with the numerous wars that Xhosa people were subjected to between 1779 and 1879 in their fight against Afrikaner and British colonial forces.
The images transform this period of South African history into a visually provocative narrative and give meaning to the critical narrative of the landscape and its current inhabitants, and makes visual the way in which history has shaped the Eastern Cape.
The exhibition was the culmination of the University’s Africa Week celebrations and forms part of a series of projects by NMMU’s Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage that tie into the greater decolonisation narrative. It is a collaborative effort of the University’s Art Gallery, the Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage and Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD).
Mancotywa said the history of the wars had largely been documented from the perspective of the colonisers, although a number of historians – including NMMU’s own Dr Denver Webb – have made strides in redressing these imbalances and helped improve the public’s understanding of the history of the current Eastern Cape and, in particular, the amaXhosa.
“It is no secret that in many ways South Africa is at a crossroads. In the same way that liberation fighters struggling to overthrow apartheid found inspiration in the deeds of their forefathers in resisting the advance of colonialism, we need to find the courage and inspiration to confront the problems we face as a country today,” he said.
He said as people view the photographs, which document the land and areas where these struggles took place, they should be mindful of the long shadow the events they represent still cast over South Africa.
“Let us all learn from our divided and conflict-ridden history and seek inspiration to address the challenges we face today,” he said.
Nunn, whose aim is to instigate social change and highlight lesser-seen aspects of society through his photography, became aware of a notable gap in the telling of this South African history. He was cognisant of the fact that little has to date been done to memorialise these acts of colonial aggression and Xhosa resistance, and decided to document the land where these struggles took place.
“We seem to be suffering from what can easily be called ‘selective amnesia’ or ‘organised forgetting’ in documenting the history of the country,” he said.
“There is only one other 100-year war in history. How on earth can it be that we, in this country, cannot understand and value this extraordinary period of time?”
The exhibition opening included a panel discussion between Nunn, Mancotywa and NMMU Trust acting chief executive and historian Dr Denver Webb, where the aftermath and ripple effect of the dispossession wars that are still a challenge today were touched on.
The exhibition will run until 15 June every weekday at the NMMU Art Gallery, on Bird Street, during office hours.