Cape Town - 150325 - Pictured is Jan van Riebeeck. Community activist Suleiman Stellenboom hung placards on colonialist statues in the Cape Town CBD. Reporter: Helen Bamford Picture: David Ritchie

With debate raging over UCT’s Rhodes statue, Helen Bamford looks at effigies in Cape Town and the rest of SA.

Cape Town - In 2011 the ANC threatened to destroy a bust of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd which had stood in front of the municipal offices in Midvaal for 30 years.

It sparked a heated debate over what to do with apartheid and colonial-era statues, much like the debate raging at UCT over the fate of Cecil John Rhodes’s statue.

It turned out the mayor of the DA-led Midvaal municipality had already removed the bust and handed it to a cultural board. The debate, however, over what to do with these symbols has been going on since 1994.

In 1999, artist Beezy Bailey received death threats when he transformed the statue of General Louis Botha, the first prime minster of the Union of South Africa, into an umkhwetha (a Xhosa initiate) to symbolise the initiation of South Africa into its new democracy.

In 2002 there was a proposal by an ANC parliamentarian to replace the Boer War hero – who sits astride his horse at the gates to Parliament – with one of former president Nelson Mandela. The call was repeated during a portfolio committee on arts and culture in Parliament 10 years later yet Botha is still there with his horse in the piece created by sculptor Raffaello Romanelli.

Last year on Heritage Day an activist tried to cover Jan van Riebeeck’s head with a black bag. The statue of Van Riebeeck, who led the first European settlement at the Cape, is on the Heerengracht and was unveiled in 1899. Further down are statues of his wife Maria van Riebeeck and Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias.

Queen Victoria still stands tall in the gardens of Parliament, while there are two statues of Jan Smuts – one just off Government Avenue in front of the National Gallery and the other in front of the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street.

There is a statue of a dog. Just Nuisance was the only dog to be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy. When he died in 1944 he was buried with full military honours and a sculpture by artist Jean Doyle was erected in 1985 in Jubilee Square in Simon’s Town.

New statues that are more representative of the post-1994 era have been erected such as South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize laureates Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former president FW de Klerk, and ANC founder Chief Albert Luthuli at the Waterfront; and a memorial to Struggle heroes Robert Waterwitch and Coline Williams, who both died at the age 20, erected in Lower Klipfontein Road.

Department of Arts and Culture spokesman Sandile Memela said the government’s attitude and policy regarding all heritage sites including statues of “former oppressors” like Botha or Rhodes, among others, was based on a national policy of reconciliation, nation-building and social cohesion. “Thus we neither support nor encourage the violent removal of any statue as this may antagonise certain sections of the people.”

Memela said this was why the department had embarked on a programme to build new heritage sites like Freedom Park in Pretoria, the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance in the Eastern Cape and the statue of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings that would reflect the new values and principles enshrined in the constitution.

“It is not advisable to incite violence or promote hate speech to get rid of any statue that represents colonialism, as in the example of the uproar around Cecil John Rhodes at UCT. However, when a community is caught up in a turmoil where some people express dissatisfaction about the presence of a particular statue, it may signal that it is time for an open and honest discussion to re-evaluate the issue,” he added.

Laura Robinson, Cape Town Heritage Trust chief executive, agrees.

Robinson said she did not believe the statues should be destroyed. It was a hot topic right now and there was a lot of emotion, she said.

“But I believe the stories behind the statues need to be told for people to learn from, so they can move forward.”

She added that if statues were on provincial heritage sites, such as the Cecil John Rhodes figure at UCT, then a formal application would have to be made.

The City of Cape Town said it had not received any requests for the erection of any new statues in the city. Two years ago it spent around R6 million moving the Cenotaph war memorial at the foot of Adderley Street to make way for a MyCiTi bus station.

Brett Herron, mayoral committee member and head of Transport for Cape Town, said a policy was being developed to deal with memorialisation, including the processes to be followed with regards to the removal of memorials and statues that belonged to the city.

A series of questions was e-mailed to Heritage Western Cape on Monday but no response has been received.

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Cape Argus