Queen Victoria cuts a lonely figure at Parliament. Although she is immortalised in the form of a towering white stone statue, she is barely visible.
Situated within Parliament’s gates, she is positioned in the garden of the National Council of Provinces. She is obscured by trees and bushes as you walk along the precinct that is famous for its annual red carpet fashion parade and which leads you proudly up to the grand bust of Nelson Mandela and statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu.
Her discreet location is perhaps why she has escaped the wrath of the statues-must-fall movement - unlike the imposing statue of Boer general Louis Botha on horseback, slap bang at the entrance of Parliament.
The fact that the British Empire’s 19th Century monarch still stands tall within the grounds of Parliament is a bit of an oddity. Her subordinates in imperialist conquests, including the most contentious figure at the moment - Cecil John Rhodes, are hidden in the basement of the New Assembly, out of view to all but a select few. They are accompanied by giant marble, bronze and granite statues of notorious leaders from the apartheid era - Hendrik Verwoerd, JG Strydom, DF Malan - who ironically had a strong dislike for British colonialism.
It is appropriate that replicas of these unfashionable leaders, who represent the country’s inglorious past for by far the majority of South Africans, are not given pride of place in the new democratic Parliament.
After 1994, there was consensus among all political parties, including the National Party, that a clean broom needed to be swept through Parliament.
Former speaker Frene Ginwala, who spearheaded the spring-clean, recalled last week how the staff had “danced in the hallway” when a giant painting of Verwoerd was taken down.
The walls of Parliament are now mostly filled with artworks and images that celebrate previously unsung heroes.
Inclusive in nature, the walls showcase the centuries-long tumultuous journey towards the new South Africa. This includes a 112-metre-long Keiskamma tapestry that lines the corridors of the Old Assembly building as a form of walking history of the Eastern Cape through the centuries until democracy in 1994.
Though the walls of Parliament have been modernised, memorabilia and paintings from previous orders have not been sledgehammered. The contentious artworks form part of Parliament’s collection of precious heritage pieces that are preserved in a number of storerooms, cared for by a special team from Parliament’s artworks office. On the first floor of the Old Assembly, giant floor-to-ceiling paintings of British monarchs, colonial-era figures and Afrikaner nationalist leaders are in safekeeping in a controlled low-light museum environment, behind closed doors.
Not completely out of bounds to the public, special tours of Parliament’s artworks can be arranged.
As the country looks to more creative and appropriate ways to exhibit its complex heritage, triggered by a fiery debate over the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT, perhaps Parliament could consider a few tweaks on its premises.
The statue of Louis Botha should be removed from its pedestal. But instead of obliterating history, it could join Queen Victoria in the shade of the obscured NCOP garden. Some of the statues among the gallery of rogues in the basement could also be relocated there. The collection would not be in reverence to an old, undemocratic order, but an acknowledgement of the history of conquest and contestation.
Each statue could have a plaque of contextualisation. A discreetly situated - and transformed - garden of memory at parliament could be a poignant reminder of the turbulent journey that we have travelled to overcome domination.
These contested figures had a sizeable impact on the country and its people. For better and for worse, it is this past that has helped shape a shared identity in the new South Africa.
* Heard is Media24 parliamentary editor. Follow her on Twitter.
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