Digging Our Own Graves 101


Digging Our Own Graves 101 is a project conceptualized by the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR). It marks a re-turn rather than a ‘clean’ beginning – it points towards things we do not know have passed, yet still haunt the present, like stumbling on an un-marked grave – “a location without coordinates” - or an inability to stand firmly on the ground, for fear it may cave in beneath ones feet. Digging Our Own Graves 101 foregrounds a differently desired grammar for the activation of memory and understanding of historical narratives, one that is akin to dancing to the rhythm of a silent or lost song. The ‘101’ in the title dislocates, among various things, commemoration time-frames, it especially escapes being pinned down to a date regarding the centenary commemoration of the Native Land Act of 19131, which, in the past year (2013) witnessed the activation of the land question via discussion forums, protests, exhibitions and electoral political campaign platforms.

Writing in a catalogue essay for the exhibition “A Decade of Democracy” held at the South African National Gallery in 2004, Art Historian and writer, Ashraf Jamal posed the question: “How, then, to commemorate? Where does one begin?” and goes on to suggest that “perhaps, at best, by accident. Or perhaps enacting the act of commemoration as an accident."2 Equally, DOOG 101 activates the hypothetical – it proposes that the accidental may even count more than the intended – it is a space for acknowledging the unknown, the what if?

DOOG 101 repositions the “Nongqawuse Syndrome” described by Achille Mbembe on page three (3) of this publication as “the name of a kind of political disorder and cultural dislocation South Africa seems to be experiencing [...] a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimizes self-destruction, or national suicide, as a means of salvation.” Nongqawuse, also known as the ‘prophetess of doom’ predicted that, on 18 February 1857, the sun will rise and set again in the east and the whirlwind will sweep all white men into the sea after which the ancestors will rise, there will be abundance for all and a life from anguish, on a deadly condition that the Xhosa people kill all their cattle and burn all their crops. Nongqawuse’s is a classic story exemplifying one of the most unforgivable and unforgettable historical acts of ‘digging of ones grave,’ one whose deadly results remain critical aspects of how the present unfolds.

As CHR, we employ this syndrome as a way of reading the present, (as Mbembe’s essay continues to do eight years on), and a strategy towards a reconsidered grammar of historicization, one that is not concerned with pursuing paths that lead to the truth but gazes, almost blindly and refuses to monumentalize itself or become depressively hopeful or liable to how the future unfolds. 


1. The Natives Land Act 1913 was passed by the parliament of South Africa in order to regulate the acquisition of land by black people.

2. Ashraf Jamal “The Bearable Lightness of Tracey Rose’s “The Kiss” in A Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004 From the Permanent Collection of Iziko-South African National Gallery. Ed. Bedford, E. Double Storey, Cape Town, P.103