Re-examining the Democracy Exhibition: Addressing Historical Imbalance at Stellenbosch University

By Moegammad Tahier Kara

27 May 2024

The Democracy exhibition at Stellenbosch University draws heavily from the extensive collections housed in the university library. While these collections are rich in historical content, they predominantly reflect a more white-centric perspective of South Africa’s past. This inherent bias within the library’s archives poses a significant challenge to presenting a balanced and inclusive narrative. Despite efforts to curate a comprehensive exhibition, the reliance on these collections has inadvertently led to an imbalance. A more concerted effort is needed to incorporate diverse voices and perspectives to truly capture the multifaceted history of the nation’s democratic journey.

Stellenbosch University’s exhibition in the university library on Democracy aims to reflect South Africa’s complex political history. The exhibition includes documents and multimedia displays that chart the nation’s journey towards democracy. However, it predominantly focuses on the white history of South Africa, which I will argue overshadows the crucial contributions and experiences of marginalised communities during the apartheid era and beyond. Despite this, the exhibition endeavours to provide a comprehensive overview of the socio-political landscape, emphasising the importance of acknowledging all facets of the country’s past.

While the exhibition’s foundation might appear skewed due to its emphasis on white history, it is not entirely out of touch or wrong. It captures significant historical milestones and figures that played vital roles in South Africa’s democratic evolution. To address the imbalance, the exhibition curators could consider incorporating more narratives and perspectives from non-white communities, highlighting their resistance, resilience, and contributions to democracy. By doing so, the exhibition can offer a more balanced and inclusive portrayal of South Africa’s journey, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nation’s diverse heritage.

In the exhibition, there are some questionable choices in highlighting key figures in South Africa’s democratic journey. The exhibition points to seven individuals as crucial players, yet their contributions are far from significant by any stretch of the imagination. Alarmingly, four out of these seven individuals are white, which skews the representation of those who genuinely fought for and contributed to the nation’s democracy. This misrepresentation diminishes the roles of the many unsung heroes from marginalised communities who played pivotal roles during the apartheid era and in the struggle for democratic freedom.

The inclusion of PW Botha as a significant figure in this exhibition is particularly egregious. Botha, as the Prime Minister and later the State President of South Africa during some of the darkest years of apartheid, was a staunch defender of the apartheid regime. His policies and actions were instrumental in perpetuating racial segregation and oppression, making his portrayal as a key player in democracy not only preposterous but also deeply offensive to those who suffered under his rule. Elevating such a figure in the context of an exhibition on democracy is a gross distortion of history and undermines the genuine sacrifices made by those who fought tirelessly for equality and justice.

The timeline presented in Stellenbosch University’s exhibition on Democracy also suffers from significant bias, reflecting a predominantly white-centric perspective over the past 30 years. Key dates and events that are emphasized tend to highlight the achievements and milestones associated with white political figures and institutions, often overlooking or underrepresenting the critical contributions and experiences of non-white communities. This skewed portrayal not only fails to accurately capture the breadth and depth of South Africa’s democratic evolution but also marginalises the voices and struggles of those who were at the forefront of the fight against apartheid and the push for genuine democratic reforms. A more balanced timeline should include the pivotal moments and actions led by activists, community leaders, and ordinary citizens from all backgrounds, ensuring a comprehensive and inclusive historical narrative.