THE garden of remembrance at Freedom Park in Pretoria, according to our government, ‘symbolises the final resting place of the fallen heroes and heroines of the conflicts which shaped the history of South Africa’. But the Isikhumbuzo memorial so far bears the names of the dead of only one side in the struggle. There is a case to be made for this, but it hardly seems to meet the South African need for reconciliation and nation building, and is likely to be highly divisive.

So what, exactly, is a hero? Most people would agree that heroism is an individual matter, a case of demonstrating courage and achievement under very challenging circumstances. It certainly goes far beyond taking up a weapon and shouting a politically correct slogan. The ANC would like us to believe that all Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres, Self Defence Unit members and struggle activists were selfless heroes of the struggle. Many certainly were; others, inevitably, were opportunists and criminals. And as we have seen in recent years from the decline in our standards of civic and political morality, even more had no real or lasting commitment to democracy.

By the same token, some South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers were racist psychopaths. Most were ordinary people shaped by the society and times in which they lived, faced with very difficult and limited choices. Ultimately, they found themselves on the wrong side of history. Some heroes never went near the battlefront: the activists bravely undeterred by the risk of disappearance at the hands of the security apparatus; and the conscientious objectors serving long sentences under abusive jailers.

Early in 2007 in an article in The Witness, Colin Gardner congratulated the South African government for the ‘wisdom and kindness’ shown in response to the deaths of former presidents P.W. Botha and Marais Viljoen. He was, of course, absolutely correct. This was the behaviour of the responsible government of a mature state. It conducted itself with dignity in recognising the continuity of the country’s history, a sharp contrast to the wild and irresponsible rhetoric that characterises some of our national affairs.

However, in commemorating Botha, the ANC suggested that he had made a significant contribution to a political settlement and the emergence of a liberated country. The man who wagged his finger at the nation while his opponents were being tortured in police stations had suddenly, it seemed, become a retrospective recruit to the cause. Is this the same president described in an obituary in The Guardian as ‘one of the most evil men of the twentieth century’, who used state terror and destabilisation of neighbouring countries in pursuit of political objectives?

As a politician Botha had few redeeming features. In his youth he had wielded a bicycle chain at opposition rallies. He was a short-tempered bully even amongst his colleagues, a political enforcer, and one of the architects of the National Security Management System that subverted the rule of law and consorted with criminals. Nor did he mellow with age. He remained an unredeemed fascist who treated the TRC, which identified the blood on his hands, with a contempt for which he was lucky to escape punishment.

When in doubt Botha instinctively looked to the right of the political spectrum. His reform of apartheid was simply intended to strengthen and prolong it. The unintended, although predictable, consequence of the re-arrangement of an authoritarian system was that it presented opportunities to its opponents.

The lesson to be drawn from both Freedom Park and the recent funerals of apartheid-era presidents is that protocol, political manners and grand gestures must not be mistaken for history. Politicians use history for their own purposes and have little respect for the shades of grey that colour most of its canvases. It was fashionable in the euphoria of the mid-1990s to express the opinion that the past should be forgotten, that South Africa must make a fresh start. This was a particularly popular viewpoint for many people who wanted their support for apartheid quickly forgotten. The work of the TRC and various initiatives of civil society made sure that this unhealthy attitude was put into perspective.

But there is a very real danger that the ANC’s partial view of the past will achieve official status in national memory and be treated as history. This makes the debate around the Freedom Park memorial wall all the more interesting and relevant. There are reportedly 75 000 names on the Isikhumbuto memorial and room for another 60 000. Present policy is highly dangerous and divisive. The heroes and heroines all belong to one side: this particular history is being written, as the subjugated have always complained, by the winners. Yet the overall sentiment accompanying functions taking place at Freedom Park has celebrated unity, inclusivity and nation building based on a shared identity founded in a common, if fractured and unhappy, past. In a speech made at the park three years ago, President Thabo Mbeki referred to the need for renewal of the human spirit.

By far the most fitting memorial would be one that commemorates all the dead of a violent and complex history rather than reflecting a simplistic notion of mass heroism defined in terms of party political rhetoric. South Africa cannot afford to forget its past: some of its less savoury aspects are already beginning to repeat themselves. But that history must not be abused; and nor should memorials like Freedom Park be used for partisan purposes.

This article was first published in The Witness on 17 April 2007 and entitled ‘What exactly is a hero?’