Two of the four burghers at the base of the Paul Kruger statue in Pretoria were defaced. Rethinking heritage should be a unifying process, not an exercise hijacked by politicians for short-term gain, the writer says. File picture: Phill Magakoe

Monuments should reflect the history of all, not merely that of the ANC, writes Farieda Khan.

Johannesburg - If it is a truism that history is written by the victors, then much the same can be said of the depiction of heritage. Throughout history, victors have often indulged in an orgy of destruction, followed by a wave of triumphalism as the statues and memorials of the vanquished were replaced by the icons of the new regime – only for these to be destroyed and replaced in the next cycle of change.

This cycle has been repeated from the time of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, right up to the present, with the destruction of ancient statues and monuments by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, bent on eliminating all symbols of these countries’ polytheistic history.

At the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the country decided on a different heritage path, in line with the prevailing climate of reconciliation, and for the most part refrained from destroying colonial-and apartheid-era monuments.

In similar vein, a decision was taken to rename public infrastructure named after apartheid-era leaders with neutral names, hence DF Malan Airport became Cape Town International and so on.

It was also realised that it was necessary to strike a balance with the preponderance of colonial- and apartheid-era monuments through the construction of a more inclusive South African iconography.

Much has been accomplished since 1994 to render visible the neglected history of previously marginalised communities and to give a more representative portrayal of the country’s diverse heritage.

However, for some time there have been rumblings of discontent from some sectors of society about what they perceive as the slow pace of change in the heritage landscape.

Earlier this year, the situation was shaken up by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, which, through its successful demand for the removal of the statue of the imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, has served as a catalyst for nationwide protest against the continued presence of pre-democracy statues and monuments in public spaces.

During these protests, not only were statues of former colonial-era leaders such as Paul Kruger vandalised and even toppled, but even the seemingly innocuous – such as a statue commemorating the role of war horses during the Boer War – was not spared.

Many voices have been raised against this cultural destruction.

For example, the South African Heritage Resources Agency has pointed out that, in terms of legislation, no heritage structure may be arbitrarily altered or demolished. It has reaffirmed that all public monuments and memorials must be protected.

The ANC has also roundly condemned these actions, stating that, as the ruling party, it has to play a leading role in ensuring that every culture’s history is protected.

Twenty-one years after democracy, it is clear that the issue of heritage remains a fraught and contested arena.

Ideally, of course, the issue of renaming and rethinking heritage should be a unifying and not a divisive process.

Still less should it be a subjective, biased process harnessed by politicians for short-term political gain.

There are some excellent examples showing the path we should be following: the Constitution Hill complex – which portrays the history of the Old Fort as a notorious prison from the late 19th century on and which includes exhibitions reflecting South Africa’s rich history and advocacy for human rights – sets the benchmark for heritage structures to emulate.

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa proposed establishing a Heroes’ Acre as a means of healing the “divisions of the past”.

Non-political figures and persons other than “governing party stalwarts” would be considered for inclusion.

These are laudable aims, but as the process would probably remain in the hands of politicians and be led by the ruling party there is no guarantee that it would be the non-partisan initiative promised by the minister.

Regrettably, the ANC’s own actions in this regard have not been encouraging, as public funds have been used, and continue to be used, liberally to memorialise the party’s icons and liberation heroes through the erection of statues and monuments and the renaming of public places and infrastructure.

The ANC’s approach to heritage is extremely problematic, as it is heavily influenced, first, by its insistence that it was the primary and even – some party loyalists claim – the only roleplayer responsible for liberating South Africa and, second, by its tendency to conflate the party with the state.

This mindset was vividly illustrated during the ANC’s centenary celebrations in 2012 when party leaders insisted that it was acceptable to use millions of rand in state funds as the centenary was intrinsically a South African event.

With government employees being encouraged to attend the event as part of their official duties, there seemed to be little understanding of the responsibility to adhere to the boundary between party and state.

It is this conflation of party and state, as well as the intrusion of party politics into arenas that should be politically neutral, that has created a climate in which Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana feels it is in order for him to rename his official residence in Simon’s Town “Chris Hani House”.

Similarly, in his official capacity as president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma delivered a speech at the annual commemoration of SACP leader Hani’s death, in which he said memorials to the party’s ”glorious leaders”, such as Hani and SACP general secretary Moses Kotane, who died in the Soviet Union in 1978, had been erected in the name of building “an inclusive heritage” and a national identity.

However, this is debatable, as these and similar events were quite clearly party events, commemorating the life of a party leader and attended by the leadership of the ANC’s political allies, the SACP and Cosatu.

For heritage to be truly “representative”, it also needs to reflect those aspects of its history considered to be ideologically unpalatable – hence it is vital that the depiction of heritage should not be decided only by political victors.

Equally, the depiction of heritage should not be held hostage to a hierarchy of oppression, whereby those who feel that they and their ancestors were the most victimised by history should decide what constitutes heritage, while others must remain silent spectators.

It would be well to remember that human beings and their motives are complex, and that history can seldom be reduced to simplistic notions of good and evil.

There is little to be gained by trying to demonise one group while depicting others as virtuous – history is not simply the story of victims versus villains.

Let the depiction of South Africa’s history and heritage be an inclusive, politically non-partisan process driven by civil society and aimed at reflecting its rich diversity – not an excuse for an ephemeral political ego trip funded at public expense.

* Farieda Khan is an independent researcher with an interest in heritage issues.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent