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Post-Conflict Memorialisation in Rwanda and South Africa

Published 26 May 2014

By Bianca De Bortoli

The process of memorialisation takes place in various forms. Often serving as a reminder of a tragic past, post-conflict societies establish frameworks of history in order to ensure their future does not contain the same fate. In the African context, South Africa and Rwanda provide a comparative analysis. South Africa’s Constitution Hill embodies an imagined future in its commitment to both justice and national discourse in post-apartheid South Africa. In contrast to that of South Africa, the process of memorialisation has become central to the healing process of post-genocide Rwanda. The Murambi memorial has been contentious in Rwanda, highlighting the nexus between politics and individuals in the process of remembering. Drawing on key themes evident in both countries like reconciliation, justice, trauma and memory, how post-conflict societies utilise both politics and history to construct new narratives, national identities and international objectives will be discussed.


The “shock and awe” approach of the memorialisation of Murambi’s dead commenced in 1996 with the refusal to bury victims of the genocide.[1]  The reopening of the former school grounds as a memorial served the purpose of remembrance through education; a curriculum not written but rather displayed as a lesson to the international community – the new students of this tragic history. Murambi demonstrates one method of remembrance in post-conflict societies that often remains unacknowledged. Geographic locations and sites of massacres are deemed dual-purpose mechanisms as a reminder of what took place during the genocide, as well as part of political agendas at the local, national and international level.[2] Murambi remains a unique example of using the dead to bring to life the ‘never again’ narrative.[3] The significance of Murambi is that in post-genocide Rwanda there is nowhere else that exhibits (to this extent) the destruction of a people as a means to prevent the reigniting of genocidal ideology. The issue of displaying human remains has been met with varying responses. Discrepancies between academics remain prominent, with some arguing that such displays are undignified, while others believing that they are essential in the preservation of memory in post-genocide Rwanda.[4] Further, the divergence of opinion regarding considerations of customs and culture in the establishment of these sites raises the issue of the competing aims of nation building and the use of such sites by the political elite to reestablish or solidify political legitimacy.[5]

Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ claims that memorials such as Murambi provide the victor’s regime with a mechanism of imagining a new nation through the narratives of the past they disseminate.[6] While the use of human remains and personal artifacts act as a form of education and deterrence, they are often dwarfed by the historical significance of what took place.[7] Despite the exhibition being inadequate in contrast to the actual tragedies that have occurred, it is essential that curators strike a balance to prevent the desensitisation of the audience and the normalisation of violence. Otherwise, this may cause disengagement between the local population and the narrative that has become their identity. Given its reputation as the “land of a thousand memorials”, Rwanda has received widespread attention and commendations for their efforts to rebuild, reconcile and move forward.

Constitution Hill

South Africa’s Constitution Hill demonstrates the perpetuation of a political narrative that serves to increase the gap between constitutional promises and the reality that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa.[8] Constitutional Hill engages in memorialisation through its perpetuation of state-based and transcendental power.[9]  Built next to the remnants of Old Fort Prison, the monument signifies the process of moving forward by remembering the injustices that once took place on the same ground. Snyman argues that Constitution Hill represents ‘monumentalisation’ – the process of the collective symbolism of an uninterrupted continuity between represented heroes and a public who ought to identify with what is represented, ultimately binding them to a tacit oath of allegiance that the monument celebrates.[10] In order to reconstruct post-apartheid South Africa, the site aims to strengthen public discourse on human rights and constitutionalism as the founding principles for a newly democratic South Africa.[11] Taken from a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, memorialisation was the mechanism used to re-write the country’s narrative.[12]

Constitution Hill provides an interesting example of a site that has an opportunity to be not only a place of memory, but also to take communities on an historical journey from the past to the future of a democratic South Africa. This is reiterated by the visual and physical juxtaposition of the prison and a ‘just’ future guarded by the Constitutional Court. Despite its location, Constitution Hill does not dwell on South Africa’s tragic past, however it does highlight the essentiality of embracing the spirit of reconciliation by providing opportunities for various narratives to be heard, and not just that of the victor. As such, a wide breadth of memory had to be incorporated into the construction of the complex. The attempt to ‘map memories’ became difficult due to the risk of re-victimising former inmates. Such a confrontation caused many to re-live the trauma of the past, while providing some degree of closure for others.[13] The government remains adamant in unifying South Africa under the banner of human rights discourse, and attractions such as Constitution Hill have become a prominent source of revenue in the foreign and domestic tourism industry. Political tourism, as Rogerson and Visser argue, is ideal for South Africa, despite the difficulties of managing such sites.[14] The political transition in South Africa has been filled with attempts to negotiate the country’s past and validate the post-apartheid order.[15] With the African National Congress (ANC) in control, the decision to opt for collective memory saw the construction of a national identity: a by-product of the dialectical relationship between  remembering and forgetting.[16] The redefining of identity subsequently resulted in the rebuilding of the South African nation, but discrepancies still remain between groups who claim their narrative is not acknowledged or included in the national model. Such post-conflict narratives are often chosen and viewed as part of a multiplatform of analysis, meaning that all were created through processes that involved storytelling, consultations, memorialisation and ritualised remembrance.[17]

Comparative analysis

The reconstruction of knowledge and history in the post-conflict era raises contentious issues surrounding the nexus between politics and memory.  Our understanding of the past is undoubtedly based around strategic, political and ethical consequences stemming from meanings that are not an easily divisible or negotiable good.[18] Although the content of political memory has its roots in past events, the desired communicative meaning is clearly directed and motivated by contemporary politics.[19] While the reconstruction of memory requires not only narration but also imaginative remembrance, there are a number of important distinctions to be made. [20] Firstly, Todorov’s distinction between ‘literal memory’ – that is, remembering the past through the remains brought to the present eg. Murambi – and ‘exemplary memory’ – defined by the political claim of guiding the future by remembering the past eg. Constitution Hill.[21] These distinctions, in more recent times, are often categorised as the contrast between the ‘politics of memory’ and the ‘politics inmemory.’ This means that the non-mutually exclusive relationship of interdependence demonstrates that the politics of memory represents a process of management and administration of actors in remembering a precise moment. By contrast, politics in memory exceeds any form of stabilisation and demonstrates the struggles often faced, such as violations, exclusions, admittance and concealment by the regimes of memory.[22]  The acts of remembrance remain vast, and it is only through the impetus of memorialisation that highlights the complexity of the dialectic of memory: past, present and future. In the examples of both Murambi in Rwanda and Constitution Hill in South Africa, these cases highlight different methods, but similar purposes. Further, the influence of such narratives has not only affected the efficacy of a reconciled, reconstructed national consciousness, but also altered the past in such a manner that the politicisation of memory has paved the way for a nation remarkably distant from an objective truth.

The construction of knowledge in post-conflict areas is often based around the victor’s narrative. Constructed, managed and controlled accordingly, the new history is often fraught with discrepancies between image and reality.[23] What drives the motivation to memorialise is ambiguous and it is only through the continual observation and study of these environments that one can attempt to understand their complexity. The rewriting of history in the cases of both South Africa and Rwanda demonstrates the attempt to establish a new generation defined by unity and cohesion so that it can also “serve as a nation-building mechanism in the aftermath of conflict.”[24] Murambi remains a testament to the tragic series  of events that took place and the lack of international involvement. Ironically, the site now houses an international education center, which, coupled with the confronting display of skeletal remains, speaks volumes about the new history’s attitude towards the international community. Arguably, the aesthetics of design and preservation are more often than not “proxies for political debates about the atrocities themselves.”[25]  Despite individual interpretation being subjective and ultimately too difficult to control, the intended meaning of public monuments are quite obviously aligned and pre-determined by the reconstructed narrative.[26] The use of selective memory by post-conflict governments is strategic primarily because they are not always easy to understand. The memory of deliberate ambiguity then goes on to serve a political purpose and as such, utilises structural amnesia to redefine its own identity by constructing and manipulating their own history to present a dominant narrative that cannot be successfully contested. Further, memory will forever remain an interdependent process of remembering and forgetting that is kept in line by influential political figureheads who ignore cries for equality.

Both Rwanda and South Africa have attempted rebuild their broken communities by trying to bring people together under an umbrella of human rights and memorialisation. Terms used by scholars to measure success, such as reconciliation, truth, forgiveness, are often met with the dialectics of success and failure due to the observations made by onlookers (usually foreign). This raises the question as to whether there is a disconnect between the academic observations and the nexus between politics and individuals in the act of remembrance. It is clear that the only way of really gaining an understanding of the complex relationship between politics and memory is to continue to observe and make connections between what is said and what is yet to be heard.


Bianca De Bortoli is currently an intern at the the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Tehran focusing on the illicit flows of human trafficking and migrant smuggling. 



[1]  Author withheld (2010) Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda 1994-Present,

[2]  Cook, Susan (2004) “The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda” in Macmillan Center for International and Asian Studies, p.293, Available at

[3]  Cowcher, Kate (2010) “Vestiges of Violence: Memory, Atrophy and the Reproduction of Genocide at Murambi” in Chapple, Boo, Mazinani, Sanaz and James M. Thomas (eds), ACAMANAC: An Index of Current Work and Thought, Stanford University Press, p.100-101

[4]  Scully, Shannon (2012) “The Politics of Memory and the Display of Human Remains: Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda” Paper given at Conflict, Memory and Reconciliation: Bridging Past, Present, and Future Memorialization and Commemoration,Kigali, Available at:

[5]  Moore, Lisa (2009) “(Re) Covering of the Past, Remembering Trauma: The Politics of Commemoration at Sites of Atrocity”  in Journal of Public and International Affairs, Vol.20, p.47, Available at:

[6]  Anderson, Benedict (2001) “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” in Verso, p.205-206.

[7]  Williams, Paul (2004) “The Atrocity Exhibition: Touring Cambodian Genocide Memorials: New Essays in Cultural Studies”, Victoria University Press, p.204.

[8]  Douglas, Stacy (2011) “Between Constitutional Mo(nu)ments: Memorialising Past, Present and Future at the District Six Museum and Constitution Hill,” Law and Critique, Vol.22, p.172, Available

[9]  Ibid, p.177-178.

[10]  Snyman, Johannes (1998) “Interpretation and the Politics of Memory”in Acta Juridica, p.317-318.

[11]  King, Tony & Flynn, M.K (2012) “Heritage and the post-apartheid city: Constitution Hill, Johannesburg,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 18, p.65, Available at

[12]  Naidu, Ereshnee (2003) “A Case Study of Constitutional Hill” in Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, p.1, Available at

[13]  Madikida, Churchill, Segal, Lauren & Van Den Berg, Clive, (2008) “The Reconstruction of Memory at Constitution Hill” in The Public Historian, Vol. 30, p.21. Available at

[14]  Rogerson, C.M & Visser, G (2007) “Tourism research and urban Africa: the South African experience” in C.M Rogerson and G.Visser, (eds) Urban Tourism in the Developing World: The South African Experience, Transaction, New Jersey, p.25.

[15]  Baines, Gary (2007) “The Master Narrative of South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: Remembering and Forgetting June 16, 1976” in International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol.40, p.301.

[16]  Antze, Paul & Lambek, Michael (1996) Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory Routledge, New York, pp. 19-20.

[17]  Baines, Gary (2007) “The Master Narrative of South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: Remembering and Forgetting June 16, 1976” in International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol.40, p.302.

[18]  Hodgkin, Katharine & Radstone, Susannah (2003) Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory Routledge, New York, p.1.

[19]  Verovŝek, Peter “The Politics of Memory: A Conceptual Approach to the Study of Memory in Politics,” Paper given at: “The Interdisciplinary Memory Conference,” New York, 2008, p.4-5, Available at

[20]  Rufer, Mario, (2012) “Politics of Memory” in Online Dictionary of Social and Political Key Terms of the Americas: Politics, Inequalities, and North-South Relations, Available at

[21]  Todorov, Tzvetan (2001) “The Abuses of Memory” in Howard Marchitello, (eds) What Happens to History? The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary Thought, Routledge, New York, p.14.

[22]  Rufer, Mario (2012) “Politics of Memory” in Online Dictionary of Social and Political Key Terms of the Americas: Politics, Inequalities, and North-South Relations, Available at

[23]  Ingelaere, Bert (2010) “Do we Understand Life after Genocide? Center and Periphery in the Construction of Knowledge in Post-Genocide Rwanda” in Africa Studies Review, Vol.53, p.41, Available at

[24]  Moore, Lisa (2009) “(Re) Covering of the Past, Remembering Trauma: The Politics of Commemoration at Sites of Atrocity” in Journal of Public and International Affairs, Vol.20, p.51, Available at

[25]  Kennicott, Philip (2004) “Memorials Set History in stone, and Make Us Ask What We Want to Remember. Is That Why We Don’t Always Embrace Them?” in The Washington Post, May 30th Available at http://www.washingtonpost.come/ac2/wp-dyn/A64865-2004May28.

[26]  Marschall, Sabine (2010) “How to honour a woman: gendered memorialisation in post-apartheid South Africa” in Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies, Routledge, London, p.262, Available at