Friends & Friction | Fighting statues: Was the history teacher wrong?

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Picture: Christopher Moagi
The statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Picture: Christopher Moagi


Do you think Winston Churchill suspected that his legacy would one day turn sour when he said that, “if we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we’ve lost the future”?

After being targeted by anti-racist protesters, his statue in London has had to be guarded by the police – in the UK of all places. Churchill also said history would be kind to him because he intended to write it.

Many years later, young people are rewriting history, and unkindly so. In Tshwane, Paul Kruger’s statue is protected by barbed wire and a second is fence coated with knife-like razors on top, just in case someone is passionate enough to destroy the concrete.

I have not seen any of Nelson Mandela’s statues defaced, but he has been called a sell-out on social media platforms by young people who were born into post-apartheid privilege.

Dali Mpofu, who is not a born-free but is a prominent EFF politician and an advocate of the court in South Africa, once tweeted: “History be PROUD of the radical fighting epochs of 1652-1879 & 1944-1990! But be ASHAMED of the selling out era of 1994-2019.”

READ: Dali Tambo: We often don’t tell the ‘her story’ of the liberation struggle

The tweet is dated September 24 2017 and hashtagged #EFFHeritageDay.

Mandela’s tenure started in 1994, which is the beginning of Mpofu’s “selling-out era”. Will Mandela’s statues require police protection in future?

Since the Bambatha Rebellion is outside of what Mpofu refers to as the “fighting epochs”, could Bambatha kaMancinza also be referred to as a sell-out one day?

If the news of today is the history of tomorrow, then many people who grew up under apartheid have witnessed the metamorphosis of history as Mandela changed from being “terrorist” to a global political icon.

History evokes passion, and we now know that one can never be on its right side forever.

If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we’ve lost the future.
Winston Churchill

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the heroes who has fallen on the wrong side of history. Now people are talking about renaming Gandhi Square in Johannesburg to Dr Esther Mahlangu Square, after the South African artist who is famous for her Ndebele art.

Perhaps this is the reason our forebears built their houses with mud and grass, and they built no monuments or mausoleums. Once they were done on Earth, they did not wish to burden the future generations with a legacy they may well regret, or in which they could take refuge from the shame of their own failures.

In the US, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio recently found themselves defending Christopher Columbus. There was a petition for a wholesale revisiting or renaming of monuments and places that are linked to people with a history of racism or those known for victimising minorities.

You don’t make peace with the things you love, you have to dump the things you hate. So there needs to be a détente because history is as complex as people.

No one is entirely good or wholly bad. Sometimes what may seem like noble actions may mask evil intentions. After all, it wouldn’t be history if it didn’t have omissions and exaggerations. What are facts if they have not been polished by an artist? And what is a historian if he or she is not a self-righteous artist who claims to be above both judgement or ego?

Art is an expression of history and a subjective record of the fears and euphorias of the time. Statues are sculptures, and so most of them are ugly in physique and some are ugly in spirit. It’s up to future generations to decide whether to magnify them or diminish them.

I am willing to negotiate the public display of Kruger’s statue if I can get a guarantee that Mandela’s statue will be safe in perpetuity.

As for Adolf Hitler, Hendrik Verwoerd and FW de Klerk’s statues, you have to bring a lot of bargaining chips to the table. Let’s have the conversation anyway, for what are humans if they can’t talk to one another?

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency


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