FIRST PUBLISHED IN SUNDAY TIMES LIFESTYLE ON SEPTEMBER 23, 2007
Who says history's boring?
History's ghosts have gathered to haunt locations all over Johannesburg, Cape Town, the Eastern Cape and KZN, thanks to the Sunday Times Heritage Project, which was launched last year.
Yes, we know you've heard all about it before and, right now, you're probably thinking that the Sunday Times looks at itself in the mirror far too much. But if the Sunday Times is a tempestuous and controversial supermodel, the Heritage Project is the sense of social conscience that makes the supermodel so popular.
The public memorials that have sprouted up at historical sites mean that you no longer have to claw through textbooks for inspiration, you'll be able to go to the exact spot where the stories took place. It's a tangible history lesson, and a reprieve for those who never paid attention in history class.
Alongside the project is the official website, www.sundaytimes.co.za/ heritage, re-launched on September 24, Heritage Day. Featuring rare, never-before-seen video footage, radio material and photographs that are complemented by 360° views of the Heritage sites, the website blasts the past into an interactive future of Flash-based video and MP3s.
Charlotte Bauer, director of The Heritage Project, says the site represents a revolutionary way of dealing with archives.
"You no longer have to go into dusty libraries to find old police documents, letters and news items. By putting it online, you can get it all at the click of a mouse."
Since its launch, the site has been teeming with information about the public memorials as they were erected. From photo galleries of events such as "The Purple Shall Govern" march of 1989 and people like Tsietsi Mashinini to a 15-minute video documentary of The Sunday Times's 100-year-long history, there is a lot to travel through.
"The new site has been specifically designed to be more user-friendly," says Steven van Hemert, the Sunday Times's interactive features editor. "The information is easier to find and the multimedia is more accessible. As such, the information is a great resource for all these stories."
A "heritage barometer" has been set up to keep you informed on the progress and completion of projects.
"Art, news and history come together in one corner," says Bauer. "The site provides a juicy, entertaining way to tell history and, more importantly, get people interested in that history."
Lomin Saayman, the website's editor, says the interconnectedness of the site's content is one of its greatest features. History is the sum of events that lead to the society we live in today; the interweaving of milestones on the site portrays this.
"One person's story illuminates another," Saayman says. "You could visit the Lilian Ngoyi memorial online and, because of her personal story and her comments on, for example, the events of June 1976, you'll be led to explore the memorials of people like Tsietsi Mashinini and Duma Nokwe."
Another way the website cleverly combines history with modern times are the MP3s available for download. You'll be able to load onto your iPod the stories behind the memorials, comments from the artists who created them and even narrations from the commemorated figures themselves. Stick in those white earphones and head for one of the memorials for on-the-spot commentary.
Bauer hopes this hotting up of stories will encourage young people to take a more profound interest in their country's history. "What we've found is that some schools have taken history off the syllabus. The Heritage website is one way to create or rekindle an interest in our past. Anyone visiting the site also has a choice of just how much they want to learn; it is layered in such a way that you get to decide how much history you want to learn."
A DVD featuring an interactive 3-D tour of John Vorster Square Police Station is a spin-off from the Heritage Project. Commissioned by the South African History Archive and filmed by Craig Matthews of Doxa Productions in Cape Town, the DVD is a virtual walk through the police cells on the 10th floor, where the security force reigned. It also features interviews with former inmates. Details on how to order the DVD will be available on the website
Much of the Heritage site's content has been uncovered and recovered by a team of researchers at the South African History Archive. Says Bauer: "This innovative partnership has allowed us to use our skills as journalists to popularise history, while the South African History Archive has used theirs as archivists to drill down into our memorial stories and unearth rare footage, letters, audio clips and photographs of our featured newsmakers and events."
Despite the revolution that microfiche caused in being able to preserve documents, time inevitably erodes history's voices. By placing these archives in the digital museum that is the Heritage website, they will endure forever in the world of cyberspace.
"The physical presence of the memorials may not be sustainable," says Saayman. "Both the Brenda Fassie and Mahatma Ghandi memorials have been vandalised. When all is said and done, the Internet will remain the most wonderful example of these moments and people that make up our history."