Why we need more monuments

2012-09-05 00:00

“TODAY I sense their absence more acutely than ever — but I also sense their presence.” These poignant words were delivered at a dedication of the memorial at Belzec by Miles Lerman in his speech, with reference to his mother, sister, her husband and three sons who were “consumed in the flames”. Belzec, of course, was the Nazi death camp where some 500 000 Jewish people were shot or gassed to death in 1942.

An article published last year in a Durban newspaper titled “Where are the Zulu heroes?” pointed out that if a visitor to Durban wanted to know more about his or her heritage, they wouldn’t get the full picture from the scores of monuments and statues to be found in key locations in the city, as the only official statue reflective of the fact that the city was once the home of the founding fathers of the Zulu nation is that of King Dinuzulu. It stands alongside that of the Afrikaner leader, Louis Botha, on King Dinuzulu (Berea) Road.

Very few statues of struggle heroes and black leaders have been erected since the advent of democracy. The premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Zweli Mkhize, must be commended for the bold initiative that he took when he announced, in his State of the Province Address, a number of heritage legacy projects to honour the unsung heroes and heroines of our struggle for national liberation. Such an initiative is long overdue.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether the installation of such memorials contributes to the process of reconciliation. Can a memorial offer acknowledgement and consolation to the victims? Martha Minow, as quoted by Rhoda Woets in her article “Comprehend the Incomprehensible”, which refers to the Memorial of the Rwanda Genocide, believes that “coming to know that one’s suffering is not solely a private experience, best forgotten, but instead an indictment of the social cataclysm, can permit individuals to move beyond trauma, hopelessness, numbness, and preoccupation with loss and injury”. Put differently, the statues and memorials announced by the premier would spawn a kind of national cathartic closure, especially for those who lost their loved ones.

The kind of response people have to a memorial depends on what community they belong to, according to Florian Rohdenburg, a former researcher at the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies in Washington DC, who has done archival research for both Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Rohdenburg points out that “the more confrontation and the less comfort you feel when you visit the memorial, the better a service it renders”.

Andrew Butterfield points out that people build monuments, not because they do not know what else to do, but because there are wounds so deep that only monuments will serve to honour them. A monument is both a personal experience and a collective experience. A monument is proof that the past is real, and that the past is still present.

A monument marks a spot and it says so forever. It is an object that serves as the locus of the memories of a person or group, and it makes those memories tangible — literally so.

Sanford Levinson believes that public monuments reflect “who within a particular society should be counted as a hero”. Memorials provide spaces for people to contemplate and question near-incomprehensible events. They are places of worship and mourning for those who have lost family members or friends. They provide a context in which survivors can feel comfortable revealing long-concealed truths about aspects of their experiences to their loved ones. The Shobashobane, Trust Feed and Nquthu massacres immediately come to mind.

Some say that monuments are a waste of money, which could be better used elsewhere. According to J.E. Young, “both a monument and its significance are constructed in particular times and places, contingent on the political, historical, and aesthetic realities of the moment”. This probably explains why certain people are sceptical when a memorial is erected by a government, given that there is an inherent danger of the memorial representing and reflecting the political ideology of the ruling party. The argument against monuments was most famously put forth by Lewis Mumford, who argued that monuments have lost their aesthetic and social legitimacy.

It is my take that the statues which the premier announced that they would be building, in all fairness transcend sectional loyalties. Who in his or her right mind could fail to recognise the significant contributions made by struggle stalwarts such as Monty Naicker, Bishop Denis Hurley, Dorothy Nyembe and others? The premier needs to be commended that women also appear in political or cultural statuary. The Heritage Chief Directorate in the Office of the Premier also installed plaques to acknowledge the manifold accomplishments of Indian indentured labourers in KwaZulu-Natal, who lived up to the lofty ideals of peaceful coexistence, peace, political and religious tolerance. These plaques celebrate our unity in diversity. In line with the transformation of our heritage resources, a sizeable number of streets now bear the names of our struggle heroes and heroines. Indeed, the installation of the statues, monuments and memorials would serve as a poignant reminder that our freedom did not come cheap.

Dr Vusi Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier, KZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

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