World War I in South Africa: Digital and Virtual Experiences

Lead Research Organisation: Aston University
Department Name: College of Business and Social Sciences


The project will produce innovative digital and virtual forms of commemorating the First World War in South Africa, expanding audiences and shaping socially inclusive remembrance patterns. Commemoration has been contested throughout the twentieth century and beyond, reflecting socio-political divisions and ongoing inequalities in South African society. The entry into the war itself was contested. Only twelve years after the South African War (1899-1902), nationalist Afrikaners were reluctant to be drawn into a conflict against an 'enemy' who had stood by their side in the struggle against British hegemony. Alongside the split between white Afrikaners and Britons, further divisions existed between dominant whites and subordinate blacks who were denied common citizenship rights. Participation in the war was 'colour coded': Those infantrists fighting in the Battle of Delville Wood were all white. They constitute the most remembered group through highly visible monuments. Less visible remembrance has existed for the Coloured Cape Corps infantry troops who fought alongside British troops in Egypt and Palestine. Black South Africans, on the other hand, were prevented by racial legislation from bearing arms during the war. As a consequence they were restricted to labour service on the front, undertaking heavy manual work and being little remembered. Only in 2016 were those blacks who had fallen in Europe honoured and remembered for the first time in an official ceremony.

In order to do justice to these complex memory layers, a diverse team of curators, creative designers, digital specialists, educationalists, heritage stakeholders and academics will construct balanced and joint commemoration. Project partners include the UK-based creative digital company, Metro-Boulot-Dodo, the national KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and British and South African academics. The team will produce three outputs covering social and military aspects of South Africa's war involvement: (i) An immersive Virtual Reality Experience will take viewers through various stages and aspects of the war experience. The narrative will focus on three fictional but archetypal individuals of different ethnic backgrounds. It will follow their path from conscription to different frontlines in Africa and Europe. Social aspects will be tackled by looking at the homefront, in particular the complex relationship between nation-building and social cleavages. (ii) A digital heritage trail app will guide users to WW1-sites in KwaZulu-Natal province. It will integrate these sites into 'battlefield tourism', attracting new visitors and supporting heritage preservation. (iii) An education pack for South African primary schools will combine general textbook information with original sources and imaginative tasks for pupils. These tasks will be integrated with the other project outputs, offering a comprehensive learner experience in a multimedial context. The outputs will be launched during the Night at the Museum in KwaZulu-Natal Museum, an annual event that attracts more than 1000 visitors. The outputs will be disseminated widely beyond the lifetime of the project to regional, national and global audiences.

Despite its centrality, the First World War has recently tended to fade in school curricula and official commemoration in South Africa. The project will employ new creative technologies in order to draw in new audiences. In fact, no national museum in South Africa has used Virtual Reality for any topic. Heritage institutions around the world currently experience fundamental transformations through the opportunities - but also problems - of digital methodologies. Going beyond the theme of WW1, the project will thus address more fundamental issues of knowledge exchange and capacity building in a country that receives official development assistance (ODA) from the UK.


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