Archive: Issue No. 111, November 2006

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Nicholas Hlobo

Assienah Mnisi�s
drawing of herself
and her baby in the cell

Mapping Memory: Former Prisoners tell their Stories
reviewed by Sue Williamson

Of the reclamation of previously tainted spaces under apartheid, perhaps the most spectacular is the emergence of Constitution Hill, the heritage precinct which was once a jail and is now the home of the Constitutional Court, heralded for its architecture, adorned with the work of hundreds of artists and craftspeople, and now an essential stop for all those who come to bear witness to the transformation of this country.

But the new finery has not obliterated the past, and careful efforts have been made to commemorate the original purpose of the Number Four prison complex and the Women�s Jail. Mapping Memory: Former Prisoners tell their Stories is a project which brought back former prisoners and gave them the opportunity to recall the past by drawing on old memories and talking about all that happened then, narratives which form an important part of the book, and reliving the past by taking paper and pencil and drawing their stories. �Best memories� focus on the fierce sense of comradeship borne of being united in the struggle; �Worst memories� are more individual � Mehlokazulu Lukhele gets a letter �telling me my mother was no more�. Zolile Mgweba writes, �the other memory that I cannot forget was at night I was sodomised by the cell boss�

The editors and curators of this project were Clive van den Berg, Lauren Segal and Churchill Madikida. The drawings made by workshop participants range from stick figures showing how the cells were divided up to some extraordinarily well rendered images: Assienah Mnisi shows herself watching over her sleeping child in the cell; a horrifyingly graphic sketch shows a naked woman with a bag tied over her head, and electric wires leading from her nipples to a wall plug.

The curators list the primary audiences they hope the project to reach: the former prisoners themselves, learners, teachers, and new audiences of scholars in history, cultural anthropology and the arts.

I would venture to say that the value of a project like this cannot be over-estimated, and that anyone who has any interest in the human condition will be drawn to these honest and moving testimonies. The photographs are by Fati Moalusi and John Hodgkiss.

Published by: Constitutional Hill 2006
Softcover, 133 pages
ISBN 0-620-36819-5