It’s Heritage Day on Thursday – or National Braai Day if you like. It’s the most innocuous public holiday you can imagine. Except in South Africa – which declared it in the first place.
This week the Democratic Alliance got itself hot and frothy about cabinet’s decision to audit all statues, symbols and monuments in public spaces and mothball the offensive ones to “theme parks”.
Why shouldn’t they be? The statues are not going to be pulled own and melted for scrap, unlike the manhole covers in many of our CBDs. It’s also not as if some of these statues and symbols aren’t actually offensive.
Statues don’t just remind us of our uncomfortable, and sometimes unforgivable, past; they’re also an inadvertent baseline for what has been achieved since – and why some achievements appear more equal than others.
It’s fascinating why there are still so few statues of Robert Sobukwe – anywhere – and why Steve Biko remains ghetto-ised to the Eastern Cape when there are still plenty of streets, suburbs and even towns across the country immortalising people like Cecil Rhodes, Paul Kruger and even Queen Victoria.
Many of the busts of National Party nonentities have been stored in museum backrooms, while some of the statues of apartheid’s arch villains have ended up in Orania. Should they all be taken down and replaced with others – or should new symbols be put up alongside?
It’s a conundrum no one has successfully answered for an entire generation. Now the old statues have become a convenient rallying point for a generational hurt that is metastasizing into something far more threatening.
This week the Smuts House Museum re-opened to the public after being closed for five-and-a-half months thanks to COVID. During that time, the friends of the non-profit, non-government funded institution took the opportunity to revise his legacy for only the third time.
He’d been airbrushed and anglicised before, his legacy as a Boer freedom fighter and nationalist conveniently excised in favour of his work for the empire and helping establish both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Isie, his wife, got a do-over to reflect her life as a patriot and a humanitarian in her own right rather than a bit part actor in his life.
In one of the halls is a massive bust that once adorned OR Tambo International Airport. Are we lessened by that or enriched because it has been preserved? What about other revisions? If #KrugerMustFall from his plinth on Church Square, then the greatest victor will be Rhodes himself. After all South Africa’s original state capturer sparked an entire war to unseat Kruger and annex his country (and its gold mines).
Maybe we should put the whole lot into a theme park with the necessary listicles, TikTok videos and Instagram stories; it might be the only way to get our ADHD generation to understand. They can even post selfies.
It will definitely also stop everyone perpetually either defacing or flinging shit all over the relics of the past. They might even focus on the problems of the present instead.
Originally published on 20 September 2020 in the Saturday Star