How it all began

Charlotte Bauer, who heads up the Sunday Times Heritage Project, provides some insights into the thinking behind, and motivation for, this newspaper's series of "narrative" memorials

ON Thursday March 9 2006 a life-size bronze statue of Brenda Fassie was unveiled outside the Bassline club in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Well, Brenda wasn't a Big Man, and she's not on a horse. Still, there's no getting away from it: she is a figurative statue and she's cast in bronze. But inspired by José Villa Soberon's bronzes of John Lennon on a park bench and Ernest Hemingway propping up a bar - both in Havana - Brenda's creator Angus Taylor has made an unconventional memorial that is every bit as inviting and playful.

At the time of her death on May 9 2004, Fassie was this country's top selling local artist. She may not have been everyone's idea of a role model, but then, this is not a project about role-models.

Brenda Fassie was a stellar newsmaker. Her work is part of this country's musical legacy.

This is why we chose her as our Poster Girl to launch the Sunday Times Heritage Project.

The Sunday Times turned 100 on February 4 2006. As part of our centenary celebrations and under the baton of the paper's editor, Mondli Makhanya, we set out on an ambitious journey across what - for us - was virgin tundra.

My brief was to "in some way" mark the spot where some of the significant news events of "our" century (from 1906-) took place, while also recognising the remarkable newsmakers who stood at the heart of these actions.

The "blue plaques" that pepper the streets of London - 'Sylvia Plath lived here' etc - were mentioned as a point of departure.

But it was the far more engrossing "Memory" signs on the streets of Schoneberg, Berlin which informed our early thinking.

The Schoneberg project, by Renate Stih and Frieder Schnock, consists of 80 small signs. Each sign has an image on one side and text on the other, usually quotations from Nazi laws that limited the freedoms of Jews in the period between 1933 and 1945.

It is only when the viewer reads the images - blonde braids; a clock's hands set at 7pm - together with the text - eugenics; curfew - that the meaning of these stylised, even pretty, images becomes clear.

This memorial making was neither grimly explicit nor sentimental, and ideas began to swirl for what might inform the look and feel of our permanent and site-specific "narrative" memorials.

The decision to give a selection of local artists pretty much free rein to make their own unique pieces evolved over time and with the guidance of many people who know a lot more about art than we do - notably the arts management company we work with to source and manage the artists and the artworks.

We wanted to show how today's news is tomorrow's history. We wished to add a small stitch to the fabric of dozens of streets and communities; to shine a light on a singular moment in 100 years of news time which, subtly or significantly, helped to shape the diverse "us".By no means was all of the news history we wished to mark shocking and painful. Our researchers set out to identify and develop a number of stories, characters and sites across the news board - Eureka moments in science, the arts, sport, politics, and society. A range of memories, often proud, even playful.

By December 2007, we will have installed 35 memorials on the streets of four provinces. As each memorial is erected, a link to it will pop up on our homepage.

Journalists are storytellers of a particular stripe. Typically newspaper stories are personality driven and action-orientated. The Sunday Times is a popular paper, so our angle on these narrative memorials is to hook the viewer by making the historic news events we are asking people to remember worth remembering - not because we should, but because we can't resist a good story.

In the identification and development of these stories our dedicated team of senior researchers has trawled through books and theses; original court documents, inquest papers, letters, banning orders, manifestos and commissions of inquiry; they have triple checked facts and tracked down original sources we didn't know were dead or alive; they have established exact sites where events happened and found and interviewed people who were there to make sure no version was left unturned.

But they hardly used the Sunday Times archive at all - never mind as a primary source.

Since 1906 The Sunday Times has called itself "the paper for the people", but this catchy slogan rather depended on who "the people" were at the time. For instance, in 1947 - around the time one of our story characters, the painter George Pemba was coming to terms with the loss of his friend and mentor, Gerard Sekoto, who had fled to Paris, the Sunday Times's art critic du jour, HE Winder wrote: "There is a disturbing new trend to take black art seriously."

Our newspaper is not in the business of revising history, especially not to make any earlier incarnations of this newspaper look better! What we are doing through this project is to look back at 100 years of South African news history from the paper's 21st-century perspective. And that, as for all South Africans since 1994, is a liberating experience.

So, we have the story plaques, on or along side each artwork which briefly describes the action: The plaque text is as short, sharp and adjective-free as a good news report should be.

Our branding on the plaques is discreet: this is not a 'revenue driving' exercise for the Sunday Times; it's a self-funded "give back" project. The small logo on our plaques is there partly to direct visitors to our website and, as importantly, to announce that we are accountable for the choices we have made.

Then we have the memorials themselves: floor and wall pieces, signage, freestanding sculptures, etc. Each one is unique, our chief command to artists being that their artworks be made as time-proof, weather proof and vandal proof as possible.

The great thing about the memorials is that they are all freely accessible and visible to the public. If our story site is a school, we install our memorial outside the gates. Several times we had to resist the temptation to place a memorial inside the gates at the invitation of the building owners themselves who were, if anything, more worried about vandalism than we were.

We have made just one exception to this rule. Our desired site for our memorial to the writer Bessie Head is the Werda Hoërskool in Hillary, Durban. In Head's day this was St Monica's Home for Coloured Girls, where the 12-year-old Bessie was dispatched by the courts after being removed from her abusive foster mother. It was there that Head met kindness mentorship in the person of Margaret Cadmore, one of the home's 'wardens'. Cadmore encouraged Head to write - her first efforts were published in the school magazine, and Head later paid tribute to Cadmore by using her name for a character in the novel Maru.

The present day school's principal, Danie De Goede, showed incredible enthusiasm and support for our proposed memorial from the outset. However, he asked that we place it - a mosaic tree bench by Durban artist Jane du Rand - inside the school gates for the safety of his learners, who had been subjected to muggings outside the school. Mr De Goede, understandably, did not wish to encourage criminals to his school by giving them a bench to sit on while waiting for victims ...

His argument was compelling - equally, the Sunday Times did not set out to endanger lives by sticking rigidly to unworkable principles! The Bessie Head memorial will be installed just inside the school gates, for learners, parents and teachers to use and enjoy.

The example of the Bessie Head memorial is instructive in other ways. On each and every memorial 'mini-project' we consulted widely, with many agencies, individuals, families and community stakeholders.

As journalists it is our democratic right to publish what we like under law in our newspaper each Sunday. But it is our privilege to build memorials on the streets of South Africa.

It probably goes without saying to most of you that getting the necessary permission, buy-in and blessings to erect 40 public memorials across the country is a massive and delicate undertaking. We are proud and pleased to boast a total of 35 out of 40 of our proposed memorials, considering the vast number of stakeholders whose blessings, buy-in or rubber stamp permission, was necessary in order to proceed. Let me explain.

Our angle on these narrative memorials is to hook the viewer by making the historic news events we are asking people to remember worth remembering - not because we should, but because we can't resist a good story.Temperamentally, journalists tend to have low boredom thresholds. Our jobs require us to work accurately, yet as quickly as possible. Final decisions are made by one person - the editor. Deadlines are sacred. Pressure is our friend.

Government departments and committees tend to have high pain thresholds. Their jobs require them to work accurately, even when that means quite slowly. Final decisions are seldom made by one person. Reaching consensus can be like Waiting for Godot, but consensus is the oft-stated aim. Due process is their friend.

I believe the mutual learning curves and resultant chemistry between these two personality types has served the project very well.

Of course we started blind, with no idea about the reach, complexity and number of roads and relationships we would need to travel, the caravans of consultation, negotiation, form-filling, pitching and pleading that would be required to put up even one memorial.

Actually, we don't plead: there are literally hundreds of stakeholders on this project in progress and their blessings - be they of the rubber-stamp kind, the political kind or the personal kind - are essential to the successful installation of any and all of our memorials.

There was never a question of the Sunday Times imposing its will and foisting unwanted memorials on resistant communities: we would simply not be allowed to. But mostly the officials we've met have liked the project and have taken great pains to help us make it happen in their neck of the woods.

Ethically speaking we decided that without the support of this project's "first ring" of custodians - the families, immediate communities and indeed those of our chief protagonists who are still living - we would drop them.

After protracted though polite discussions with members of the Rand Club in Johannesburg, they voted against allowing us to install a mosaic-ed "painting" on their Commissioner Street façade about the mining magnate Lionel Phillips.

We also walked away from a story we were developing about James Mpanza who, depending on one's point of view, was a Godfather-like thug and/or a champion of the poor and landless in early Soweto.

In 1944 Mpanza, a convicted murderer with a bit of a Messiah complex, seized a tract of vacant municipal ground and settled thousands of landless people there. A keen horseman, Mpanza and his men helped Soweto's first squatters to erect temporary shelters - then galloped round charging them rent.

To this day he is seen by some as the Father of Soweto and by others as a dodgy figure whose disciples later formed the Sofasonke Party that was seen as a stooge of the apartheid government.

Many people still ask us why we've left Mpanza out of our project. Simply put, we were informed by local ward councillors after meetings with the stakeholder community that the community did not want it.

One of our most politically and technically challenging memorials took almost two years from concept to completion: our representative memorial to South Africans who died in detention during the apartheid years at the hands of security police, though the terrible story of goings on at one police station - the infamous John Vorster Square [now named the Johannesburg Central Police Station].

Between the early 1970s and 1990, seven men died there while in the custody of the security police on the10th floor of the building. Some were tortured, others "jumped" or "fell" out of the window of the interrogation room.

The great thing about the sites is that they are all freely accessible and visible to the public. Indeed, many of the artworks invite the viewer to touch them or sit on them. They are meant to look approachable.Today the station has been transformed into Johannesburg Central Police Station and the bust of its earlier namesake, then prime minister John Vorster, has been unceremoniously removed to the police museum.

Hundreds of ordinary men and women work here now. Many of them were children or not yet born when apartheid made the law unto itself.

A building that was once a symbol of fear for many law-abiding citizens now pledges to serve and protect those same people's rights.

From the start our question to ourselves was this: how might we mark the terrible things that once happened within the station's precincts without offending and upsetting those who work there now, by association? How to do it without sanitising the facts? It gave us - and the artists involved - sleepless nights.

The primary artist commissioned to make this most sensitive memorial, Kagiso Pat Mautloa, came up with a powerful first concept - four huge metal cut-outs of the human body, that would hang on the outside wall of the police station, appearing to 'fall'.

It was rejected by all stakeholders - including the Sunday Times - though with varying degrees of reluctance.

Mautloa's second concept was considered by us to be sentimental - though he cannot be blamed for overcompensating at this point.

Mautloa third concept has been successful. Though it took over a year to get approvals from various stakeholders, including the South African Police Service's national office.

Fellow artist, Angus Taylor (who made our Brenda Fassie), entered the picture at this point to help realize Mautloa's concept as a built memorial. It is a great rock of granite, sourced in Mpumalanga and mounted on a concrete plinth. The rock is bound in wire, variously suggesting resilience, confinement and strength. It is both subtle and poignant, and it can be 'read' in different ways by different viewers.

The finished artwork went up on the street outside the police station in August 2007.

Obviously the project is not infinite, in terms of capacity, time or budget; and in selecting the memorials we have, we are, naturally, inviting criticism, especially concerning the many significant events and amazing people we have left out.

The Sunday Times Heritage Project makes no claim to be definitive. The stories and people we have chosen to commemorate are not the only ones; our way is not the only way.

But we have made a start. This is our contribution to "storytelling" our heritage, one we'll continue through 2007 and beyond.

We believe these memorials and the sites where they live will add a valuable stitch to the fabric of their immediate surroundings and communities, animating the past in ways we can make sense of today.

Our start point was that in order to promote a national identity, we must first acknowledge the complex range of South African voices and experiences that have, in some way, shaped the heartlines, faultlines and achievements of the diverse 'us'.

On behalf of us all who worked on this unique project at the Sunday Times, we would like to pay particular tribute to the families of the extraordinary men and women who are the heart of our project.

We thank them for their generosity towards us and their willingness to share with strangers their memories and experiences, joyous and painful, so that we might better know and understand what drove the people and events which have influenced who we are, and who we may still become.