/ 17 June 2011

Where apartheid statues go to die

‘What are they going to do with the head?” I wondered as the noose on the strap tightened around the prime minister’s stiff neck.

The image on the television showed a bronze bust of Hendrik Verwoerd being hoisted off a sand-coloured plinth and deposited on a white flatbed truck. Perhaps the old man would be carted off to a secret municipal dumpsite named in ­honour of Leon Trotsky.

There is no such place. Metaphors are not fact and history is not easily swept aside by Trotskyite rhetoric, especially when it is cast in bronze. Dismantling this sort of history, which is ceremonial, blatant and weatherproof, requires many talents, not least being a head for political theatre and nous for logistics. A contact number for a man with a crane is also useful.

Timothy Nast, the 28-year-old executive mayor of the Democratic Alliance-led Midvaal municipality, recently proved himself adept at the latter when, on May 4, he rid his metropolitan region of what was said to be the last Verwoerd sculpture on official public display. But his handling of the event was marked by naivety, allowing a nominally benign action to escalate into a national comedy.

A quick recap of where things stand.

On the morning of May 5 Nast’s office telephone started ringing off the hook. What had the mayor done with the Verwoerd bust that had stood outside the Meyerton municipal offices for the past 28 years? The queries intensified as television news replayed images of the former prime minister’s summary lynching. Who was the man with the white truck? And why did he pitch up for the removal job at 10 the previous night?

“It was removed when the contractor could remove it,” Nast, who grew up in the patrician village of Henley-on-Klip, bluntly told an inquisitive Sapa reporter. “Ask the contractor.” And he is? “A man called Piet,” responded Nast, unable to offer a surname.

Final resting place. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The low comedy of his opening gambit set the tone for what was to follow. Responding to inquiries about where Piet had journeyed into the night with Verwoerd’s bust, Nast offered an unequivocal response. The bust had been returned to its owners, the Klipriviervallei-kultuurvereniging (KKV), an obscure cultural council that is technically defunct.

The KKV formed part of a network of regional cultural councils allied to the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), a powerful Afrikaner heritage organisation and Broederbond front group founded in 1929.

In May Freddie Peters, a former KKV chairman and current Democratic Alliance member, hastily reconvened the inactive council following threats of vandalism to the bust made during the run-up to the recent hotly contested local government elections. (The elections saw ANC heavyweights such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Julius Malema trek to Meyerton in an ultimately failed attempt to drum up party support).

On May 4, the day the bust was removed from its plinth, Jackson Mthembu, the ANC national spokesperson, issued a statement lambasting “the sheer display of arrogance by Nast, who has refused to remove Verwoerd’s statue”. He added: “To the majority of South Africans, except in the eyes of the DA, Verwoerd remains a symbol, embodiment and apartheid architect of all ills of the country’s terrible past and his statue should be confined to a museum.”

Nast, who was 19 when he was elected a municipal councillor in 2000, acted swiftly, convening a meeting of the mayoral committee. It passed a “formal resolution” to have the Verwoerd bust removed and Piet was summoned.

The hurried removal of the bust has ushered in a period of political theatre.

A day after the bust’s removal, Dumisani Dakile, Cosatu’s provincial secretary in Gauteng, issued another of his quixotic communiqués. Dakile, who last year denounced Malema as a “premature leader” and a “grandstanding crazy individual”, demanded that the statue “be removed and thrown into the dustbin of history within seven days”.

Presumably the biblical timeline is indicative of how long it takes to build this mythical dustbin.

The Midvaal chairman of the Freedom Front Plus, Corrie Pyper, was equally annoyed, if for entirely different reasons. “Skelm,” he cried, accusing the DA council of being underhanded. “I’m not saying apartheid was right but it is still part of our history,” Pyper told Sapa. “If you want to do something like this, you tell people: ‘Listen, we are going to remove your uncle. Come take a picture, come shed a tear.’ “

Were it 1994, Dakile and Pyper’s statements would read as urgent and timely. But by 2011 both men appear to have boarded the late flight to a place called Political Expediency. “How soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history,” says Pavel Grekov, a Russian state functionary, in Johannesburg writer Ivan Vladislavic’s superb 1996 short story, Propaganda by Monuments. Grekov makes this observation about his memory of “the hundreds and thousands who had taken to the streets to watch the first monuments fall”.

Busts of apartheid leaders, including Verwoerd, stored at the Voortrekker Monument. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

It was not just the Russians who lost interest in toppled monuments. In Germany thousands turned out to see the undoing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Three years later, when a 19-metre red Ukrainian granite effigy of Lenin was dismantled in East Berlin, men in hard hats were the principal crowd. Unmaking history had become a dull logistical exercise.

As in Berlin so too in Bloem­fontein: three years after the workmanlike disassembly of Lenin, a 4.3- metre bronze statue of Verwoerd, which had stood in front of the headquarters of the Free State provincial administration since 1969, was removed from its pedestal. The steady removal of Verwoerd busts from council offices in the ensuing period has, for the most part, happened unnoticed.

“Where do they put them all?” Grekov wonders to a work colleague.

“Scrapheap — of history,” he is told.

“No, seriously,” Grekov insists.

It is a fair question. In Hungary, which also saw its fair share of toppling monuments, a 20-minute ride on a Budapest bus will deliver you to Memento Park, which displays 42 public sculptures dating back to Hungary’s four decades of communist rule. Not all monuments are preserved in this way. Nikolai Tomsky’s stone Lenin, all 129 pieces of it, is buried south of Berlin.

(Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The situation is no less contradictory in South Africa. After spending 12 years in a warehouse attached to a Bloemfontein furniture factory, sculptor Gerard de Leeuw’s life-size statue of Verwoerd is currently in Pretoria — so too the Meyerton bust. Their display couldn’t be more distinct.

The De Leeuw sculpture lies on its back on old tyres in a storage yard at the Voortrekker Monument. It is wrapped in shade cloth and dotted with mud dauber nests. In contrast, the diminutive Meyerton bust is being displayed provocatively alongside the old orange, white and blue national flag at Kleinfontein, an 860-hectare right-wing enclave northeast of Pretoria.

Established in 1992 on a South African Anglo-Boer War battle site, Kleinfontein is home to, among other things, the Afrikaner-kultuurbond (AKB), a conservative Afrikaner cultural organisation that entered into a loan agreement with the KKV to house the Meyerton bust. Symbols are important to the AKB.

In 2006 the group staged a protest ceremony at the National Women’s Memorial & War Museum in Bloemfontein. Speaking at the event, AKB chair Theuns de Wet said: “Monuments testify to our nation’s heroes, our religion and our nation’s future hopes.” He said any changes to them represented “an effort to strip us of our identity”.

The presence of the Verwoerd bust at Kleinfontein has clearly emboldened some of the enclave’s residents. On June 2, a day after Beeld reported that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had written to the department of arts and culture requesting it to locate the “stolen” Verwoerd bust, Jan Beyers, who chairs the Donkerhoek Verkenners, a regional branch of a conservative cultural and religious organisation espousing self-rule, issued a challenge to the presidency. Come and “steal” the bust back.

The statue of HF Verwoerd that was removed from its place in Midvaal now stands in the town hall on the farm Kleinfontein, east of Pretoria. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

“The department is taking up the matter of the bust with the Midvaal municipality as it is part of the history of the country,” Lisa Combrinck, the department’s head of communications, said. Public memorials are protected in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999 and cannot be disturbed unless under permit from the relevant authority.

When I mention Kleinfontein to Cecilia Kruger, the chief professional officer at the Voortrekker Monument, she shakes her head. It is Kruger’s job to handle the day-to-day running of the Heritage Foundation, a section 21 company founded in 2002 to protect Afrikaner heritage.

In 2006, for example, the foundation negotiated an agreement with former Free State prime minister Beatrice Marshoff to transfer De Leeuw’s sculpture to Pretoria. Its outdoor resting place is an exception. The foundation has a climate-controlled gallery and storage facility containing dozens of bronze statues, oil portraits and photographs of apartheid statesmen, including four Meyerton-style busts of Verwoerd alone.

I was first made aware of this collection by Jonathan Cane, a history graduate who decided making art was more attractive. For his contribution to the 2010 Spier Contemporary Cane mapped the outlines of all the hospitals, office blocks, dams, airports, primary schools and suburbs named after Verwoerd. (“They wanted us to live in a monument,” writes Vladislavic in his 2003 short story The Prime Minister is Dead.)

Cane’s display included a photo of a forlorn Verwoerd bust. I asked him where he found it.

“It is underneath the Voortrekker Monument,” he said. “These very kindly old Afrikaans ladies in white coats — all doctors of archaeology and what not — obsessively, neurotically care for these things, to protect them.” It sounded vaguely sinister.

Kruger, who has blue eyes and treated blonde hair, is anything but creepy. She doesn’t wear a dustcoat. She speaks fluent English. She has a master’s degree in heritage management.

The Voortrekker Monument, presided over by head museum official Etta Judson has provided a home for many symbols of the apartheid past. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

“We are not a political organisation,” said Kruger. “We just passionately care about our culture and our heritage. We believe that through apartheid a lot of injustices have been done and, in the event, many of the positive contributions and contributors to the building of South Africa have been forgotten.”

Although curatorship forms a large part of her duties, a common sense approach to business is also on her agenda. The Voortrekker Monument is a museum, which, as Mthembu stated, is where Verwoerd ought to be confined.

Verwoerd is only a small part of the story the museum wants to tell. As it is, most visitors go to the Heritage Foundation to research their genealogy. There is an additional walk-through display of Afrikaner history since 1900. It includes a large photo of runner Zola Budd.

As I wind up my visit to Pretoria’s very real dustbin of history, I ask Kruger what she makes of something Vladislavic stated in an essay accompanying a 2008 exhibition of William Kentridge’s tapestries in the United States.

“People,” he wrote, “may feel the loss of symbols more acutely than the loss of direct political power or economic status.”

“Probably,” said Kruger, “the Afrikaans community has accepted that, politically, they will never be able to achieve anything. The accent has moved to the achievements and contributions on the socioeconomic level.”

Nonetheless, symbols remain important. “Look, it is part of your identity. Whether it was right or wrong what apartheid did, those were leaders who played an important role.”