Critical Review of Witnessing History / Embodying Testimony: Gender and Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa, Annie E Coombes

The article emphasises women’s contribution to testimony on the South African apartheid with an emphasis on their emotions and daily struggles, debating how memorials can sufficiently convey this.

Coombes’ argues that the struggle when creating a memorial is how public interest and the sensitivity of private grief can be combined. The question she poses is whether museums justly portray the emotions the victim felt during the time of the apartheid, which were unearthed in their retelling of events. Coombe’s states the site of memorial should be as close to the truth for the purpose of preservation. It can be argued that this is stronger than a reconstruction, as the real site is standing proof that the apartheid happened, and can hold the emotion and memories of it. However, she discloses that visitors cannot share the experiences of those who were affected; likewise, the experiences of one victim cannot be generalised across all as each individual has a different account of the same event, depending on the strength of their victimisation. In support, Coombes argues that artefacts, such as the victims’ memory boxes, are the strongest form of preservation and memorialisation as they tell each individual’s personal story, in the form of which they wish to tell it.

The narrative testimony method used by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was effective as Coombes argues that it can be used to tackle HIV initiatives in South Africa as the levels of anxiety and inequality are equal to that of the apartheid. This can be considered a strong argument the daily struggles of the women Coombes sources were revealed through contextualising a specific traumatic event such as the death of their child. Whilst this is beneficial, recalling such events is psychologically harming for the victim as they are being asked to recall a traumatic event or part of their lives which they may not wish to revisit. It could be argued then that the majority of Coombes’ primary sources should be viewed with caution, as the victim may be unwilling to give the full account, or may have forgotten detail over time. That said, as an emotional period of their past, these memories are likely to be strong and accurately recollected.

            Whilst the title states that Coombes’ focus is on gender and memory, the focus on women’s contributions to the apartheid’s testimony creates a biased history, perhaps due to her feelings of sympathy for these women which are evident throughout the article. Yet the reader lacks the male South-African apartheid history. Regardless this makes Coombes’ main conclusion, that history and memory are different, convincing. History is what is documented applied to the masses, whilst memory is personal to the individual. This can play in a role in the historiographical debate when applying her agreement with Posel’s idea of providing “blunt tools” for the craft of history-writing, suggesting that documentation of the past can become biased, and therefore becomes an inaccurate source for the apartheid, much like only presenting one gender’s testimony.



Coombes, Annie E, Witnessing history/embodying testimony: gender and memory in post-apartheid South Africa, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2011, Royal Anthropological Institute


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: