Accepted Paper:

Multiple colonialisms and the challenges of decolonisation for museums in South Africa  


Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape)

Paper long abstract:

In the mounting debates about decolonisation and decoloniality in academic institutions and museums, an understanding is sometimes presented of decolonisation as a sudden rupture, and as a radical epistemic politics that has recently emerged, after all the failures of the past. The most common model of colonialism that is usually presented is of a single colonialism, of one coloniser and one colonised, and of a colonial relationship forged on a formal colonial relation and its aftermath. One view has also emerged that those European societies, which had no African colonies or whose formal African colonial history was of short duration, were fortunate to be 'relatively untouched' by colonial attitudes. Finally, a view of decolonisation that has been articulated recently is that it will be accomplished through the restitution of artworks and artefacts to societies in Africa from which they had been appropriated. This paper will question these views by presenting South Africa as a society marked by multiple colonialisms and colonialities. This includes formal colonial histories with more than one European society, and colonial histories with European societies that did not conquer and colonise its people. It also includes colonial histories of South Africa as formal colonial ruler over the people and territory of Namibia, and as regional sub-imperial power that exercised violent, repressive power outside its borders. It also requires an understanding of a South African society founded on an 'internal colonialism' of segregation and apartheid, and the knowledge and disciplinary systems that were inaugurated to enable the government of people and objects. This paper suggests that the most important way of understanding colonialism and its enduring nature is through an epistemic study of knowledge systems, disciplines and categories which came to characterise the modern museum and its government of its collections how these took shape in different societies. In embarking upon a path of democratisation, some museums in South Africa have begun the landmark work of demolishing such colonial categories, and altering these knowledge systems while recognising that multidirectional restitution work will be an important component of remaking the museum of the future.

Panel B09
Decolonizing African heritage inside and outside the African continent [initiated by the University of Mainz, with Leiden University/Anthropology, University of Rwanda]