Colonial and apartheid statue graveyard ’absurd’ historians warn government
Durban - BUILDING statue “graveyards” to artificially reconstruct history was “absurd” and not the solution to nation-building and transforming South Africa’s cultural landscape, historians warned yesterday following Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa’s address on the subject at a provincial legislature sitting in Gauteng.
Mthethwa told the recent virtual special sitting on the transformation of South Africa’s heritage landscape that controversial statues would be relocated if the public in local municipalities and metro councils supported the move.
Mthethwa, speaking in a debate on SAfm yesterday, said the community-led transformation was in line with a Cabinet decision to appoint a consultative task team led by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture to perform a full audit of all the statues, symbols and monuments in the country and highlight how they espouse constitutional “post-colonial” and “post-apartheid” values.
The outcome of the audit would guide the identification of proposed cultural “nation-building theme parks” that would house the statues.
“We had to consult widely for about four years ... and came to a point that there have to be particular criteria used to transform those spaces, and those criteria are the foundational principles of our constitutional democracy, that those who stood opposed to these values should not necessarily occupy prominent spaces in our public areas,” he said.
However, Mthethwa said this did not mean that symbols should be relegated “to the dustbin of history”.
“We should have cultural nationbuilding parks in the provinces where the narrative of each individual and what he or she did in the past is known for generations to come,” he said.
“We have learned from other countries. On the fall of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s and early ’90s statues of Lenin and Marx were destroyed and confined to a museum, but people across the world demanded to see these statues, and as a result officials had to do facelifts to those statues and they are a source of tourism,” he said.
University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) historian Professor Donal McCracken, who is working on a project to relocate the statue of King George V from UKZN’s Howard College Campus to a site with historical context, said it was important to preserve history, but the prominence and position of statues should be carefully considered.
He said the statue, which protesters splattered with red paint in 2015, was offensive to students because it was a symbol of white rule.
“I don’t think I agree with a statue graveyard. I do think certain statues should be removed and new statues should be introduced. The statues of General Botha and King Dinuzulu in King Dinizulu Park are in a sense appropriate because the two knew each other and they were friends, and Botha let Dinuzulu out of jail eventually.
“The important thing is that action is taken in a sensible and a restrained manner, otherwise it just becomes a political news story,” he said.
McCracken suggested that some statues could rather be moved to relevant spaces with historical context such as the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) battlefields in northern KZN.
“Heritage is very sensitive but it’s something that moves with time, it is not a static thing and this is by no means new or unique to South Africa. In Ireland a lot of the British statues of
Irish men were blown up or taken down in the 1940s and ’50s. Where it becomes problematic is it becomes a political vehicle, whereas heritage should be more than that, it should reflect the past and not just one person’s past,” he said.
University of Pretoria emeritus Professor Frans Johan Pretorius said the idea of relocating statues to theme parks was “absurd”.
“Like Pieter-Dirk Uys said, it is a ‘boerassic park’. I fully agree with that because you put cultural people who are a minority in a country, where the Constitution makes provision for diversity, you put them in a spot where they are vilified. We are not good enough to be a part of the history of South Africa, so put them in their place. Even though the government says this is not the case, it feels like it,” he said.
However, Pretorius said there was an argument to remove National Party statues erected between 1948 and 1994 because they represented “a ghastly policy that isolated us”.
“My basic argument is let’s add and not remove – like the stature of General Hertzog at the Union Buildings was moved slightly to the side, and Mr Mandela was placed in the centre,” he said.
UKZN history Professor Kalpana Hiralal said society could learn from history, and that theme parks could be used as spaces for political debate.
“Relocating statues to a particular place can be a solution. It can be a space not only for historical debate, understanding and learning but a political space for people to discuss and deliberate on the past and the present,” she said.”