Row over statues is deeply revealing, but we can emerge as a more united nation

by Adv. Sonwabile Mancotywa

CEO, National Heritage Council

The recent controversy over the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and the subsequent attacks on several other colonial-era statues, as well as the polarised public opinion this has generated, is deeply revealing of the many challenges that face South Africa.

 

Even more than the protests themselves, public comments on social media and elsewhere, has revealed just how acutely divided we are as South Africans. On one hand, the controversy has exposed much deep-seated resentment amongst Africans over apparent intransigence of their white compatriots, how angered they are by the slow pace of economic and social change and how frustrated they feel that after more than two decades of democracy transformation of society appears to have stalled. On the other hand, some white South Africans feel they are being unfairly blamed for the current socio-economic ills facing the country and that they are being made scapegoats for government’s failures.

 

What this has brought home to all of us is just how important symbols are in a nation state. Socio-political change needs to be accompanied by visible change of the nation’s symbols. Our statues and memorials are visible representations of power relations. Of course, the situation has been further enflamed by opportunistic politicians and others who have attempted to highjack legitimate concerns to garner support.

 

It has been encouraging to see more level-headed and mature politicians calling for a calm and rational approach to the issue. We need to commend Christian Martin and his comrades for the example they set. Also, we need to appreciate the words of the chairperson of the Arts and Culture Portfolio Committee, Xoliswa Tom, when she said, “These acts of criminality are in no way adding value to the critical dialogue that needs to happen as the country continues in efforts to create a prosperous life for all South Africans‚” and that, “despite our different views on South Africa’s history‚ what remains important is our ability as a country to engage each other as taught by the late former president Nelson Mandela.”

 

She is absolutely right. No-one should destroy or damage heritage objects and sites, no matter how frustrated they feel. Instead, we all need to undertake serious introspection and ask ourselves what has brought us to this point. We need to separate the broader societal issues and the heritage ones. The National Heritage Council (NHC) is ready and willing to lead in the national conversation about statues, memorials and monuments in a democratic society.

 

Indeed, in 2013-14 the NHC anticipated this controversy. Noting the contestations that arose around the Duncan Village Massacre memorial, the Sol Plaatje statue, the King Shaka statue at the new Durban international airport and even the manner in which the Midvaal Municipality removed a bust of Verwoerd, the NHC has conducted research and drafted a policy discussion document on the very issue of statues, memorials and monuments. That policy discussion document is ready for release for public consultation and comment. In May the NHC will begin a public process of soliciting inputs from communities across South Africa.

 

The policy proposals address several issues. It examines two aspects – how statues, monuments and memorials from the colonial and apartheid era were managed after 1994 and, secondly, why some new ones erected post-1994 have been vandalised and become objects of contestation. The discussion paper analysis both policy processes and practice since 1994 and undertakes a number of international case studies of countries that faced similar challenges of what to do with statues from a discredited ideology.

 

Amongst other things, the proposals highlight that the policy of reconciliation pursued during the presidency of President Nelson Mandela was sometimes misconstrued to mean no apartheid and colonial icons would be removed. It also notes that where statues of Verwoerd, Strijdom and others were removed, this was done in an ad hoc manner, without clear policy guidelines. Similarly, the construction of new memorials and statues proceeded in a policy vacuum, sometimes leading to contestations and vandalism.

 

International case studies of, especially, former Eastern bloc countries like Hungary suggest one of several options of how to deal with apartheid and colonial era statues. In Hungary soviet-era statues removed from prominent public spaces and placed in special memorial or statue gardens where they were contextualised. Essentially, the NHC is proposing an audit of all statues and memorials in public spaces and then a process to reach consensus on which ones remain in loco and which ones get moved to suitable less prominent sites. As the NHC we would really like to get public inputs on this proposal.

 

The recent protests around statues have shown us that we need to pay proper attention to the symbols of our democracy. We all need to ask what symbols could represent our societal values and can serve as an inspiration. Hopefully, we will all be able to reach consensus and emerge from the current situation stronger and more united nation.

 

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