A question of reconstructing history

The issue of what to do with our colonial and apartheid legacies — monuments, statues, town and street names — has resurfaced, with Port Elizabeth African National Congress members Mike Xego and Mkhuseli Jack demanding that colonial monuments be removed from public places, as they are an offensive reminder of an abusive past.

The issue lies at the very public heart of identity for many South Africans. If your family lost its ancestral land through war waged in the Eastern Cape by British troops and settlers, it is understandable that you would not relish being faced daily with a reminder of your loss in the guise of a statue of Queen Victoria, overseer of that dispossession.

Similarly, people of European ancestry who feel that their continued presence in South Africa is under threat take as proof of that threat any suggestion that the public memory of their ancestors be erased.

South Africa sports a wide variety of historically significant structures, all serving different purposes — from lone statues to large monuments to the most recent, Freedom Park.

Our large monuments pose a more interesting question than the smaller statues, especially in terms of the physical dominance they have over their area.

The massive monument built in Grahamstown to celebrate the input of the British settlers of 1820 to the area is shaped like the ships they arrived in.
It dominates the local landscape, as did these foreigners. In 1974 the monument gave rise to a small arts festival, which has arguably become the most important cultural event in the country, showcasing South Africa’s diversity.

Possibly the most striking monument in South Africa is District Six — the massive scar on the hillside of central Cape Town that should, by its proximity to the CBD, be the heartbeat of the great city.

The vibrant multicultural community that once inhabited the area was forced onto the squalor of the Cape Flats in 1966, and tacit community agreement meant that no one built on the land subsequently, leaving a monument of devastation to apartheid’s folly.

One of the strangest structures in the Eastern Cape lies hidden and abandoned in the foothills of the Amathole mountains. In 1982, in an attempt to create a separatist Xhosa nationalism he hoped would sustain his power in the artificial “state” of Ciskei, chief minister Lennox Sebe called for the erection of a massive building with a Taal Monument-type phallic tower.

This was built on one of the most potent sites of Xhosa identity — Ntaba ka Ndoda — the stronghold of King Sandile and an important symbol of Xhosa independence.

Sebe was really hijacking this identity for his own political ends and the monument was never what he hoped it would be. His dreams of a Xhosa renaissance, with him at its helm, never materialised.

The monument has since been deliberately destroyed. All that is left is the hulking shell of Sebe’s nationalist dream and a small, tatty marble plaque commemorating seven Ciskei soldiers who died “in defence of their country”.

What do we do with these monuments, let alone all of the statues in towns around the country? Political figures will always lose power and have to be replaced — do we rotate our statues and monuments every 50 years?

We can’t cleanse our history of what happened. Perhaps the most powerful warning to future generations of the errors of the past is their public display.

No one who drives past the wasteland that is District Six can fail to be reminded that apartheid was socially destructive; anyone who sees Sebe’s monument peeking out from behind Ntaba ka Ndoda is reminded of the farce that was the homeland system.

Let us turn our monuments to positive use — broaden them into centres of living excellence like that in Grahamstown, or perhaps place a politically-contrasting figure alongside a statue, as East London has done with its bronze figure of Steve Biko next to the colonial horseman in front of the City Hall.

Freedom Park is a tribute to heroes of the freedom struggle. If we had more public tributes to black South Africans, the history of the colonial and apartheid eras might be put into a more accurate context.

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