The University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein campus is spatially divided into two parts: the “old” one and the “new” one.
The former, which includes the main building and a majority of the lecture rooms and residences, is the most central area of the campus and is the biggest and busiest of the two. It is what one might call the nucleus of academic and social activity at the university.
The latter exists on the periphery of this nucleus and includes only the few new residences and buildings on campus. It is also located at the far end of the campus.
These spaces have their own distinct characteristics, which arise as a result of not only the people who occupy those spaces but also the “social objects” that are found in them.
These objects include not only the buildings but also the individual practices and beliefs of the people who live in those spaces and the prejudices held by the people in charge of them. Although these and the many other “social objects” have been questioned, there are a few that are hardly ever challenged with the same ferocity: the art pieces that are found in those spaces.
But this has changed over the past few years. With the rise of fallist movements on campuses across the country, art on campuses is now being questioned for its role in the creation of exclusionary institutions.
Students have become aware of the fact that the public art on their campuses (especially the statues of old Afrikaner nationalists) is more than just art; it keeps alive the toxic ideals that empower the few.
As a result of this, students are now aware that whenever art is placed in their public spaces, it is done so to contribute to the social reality of these spaces and that the art itself can play a role in the indoctrination of the people who occupy these spaces.
One such art piece has been at the centre of the public art debate at the University of the Free State: the statue of Marthinus Theunis Steyn.
Steyn was the sixth and last president of the independent Orange Free State (OFS) from 1896 to 1902. When the South African War (1899-1902) began he fought in it, taking troops towards the Cape and organising Boer resistance. For this he was adored. Defeat was inevitable but Steyn opposed peace, unless it guaranteed independence. He was largely responsible for the memorial to the Boer, but not the black, women and children who died in British concentration camps. He was buried at the foot of the statue.
This statue is in the old section of the campus. First erected in 1929, the statue has dominated that social space — a space that is also the power centre of the entire university — for almost a century, and it has kept alive the racist ideals that led to its erection.
Its presence in that part of the campus, where all the important university decisions are taken, has kept in place the racist conditions that were instrumental in the founding of the university, and succeeded in stopping any possibility of a radical transformation of the space.
Its presence there is so influential that, years after the university first opened in 1906, the violence on black bodies that Steyn once embodied now live on through his statue.
The truth of the matter is this: inanimate objects have power — to define, to teach, to disrupt and to keep alive ideals. The power that is perpetuated by the statue forces everyone around it to agree with the violent history that necessitated it.
As a permanent public art piece, Steyn’s statue was created to ensure that the message it stood for becomes timeless. It was made in a way that ensures that everybody who interacts with it automatically recognises its superiority and accepts their subaltern position in relation to it.
By placing it on a pedestal, its makers and curators ensured that onlookers have to look up — an action ensuring the acceptance of its physical superiority. And, by exaggerating Steyn’s size, essentially making him look bigger than a normal person, his makers bestowed on him qualities of being larger than life — a man who defied and continues to defy the laws of nature that the rest of us are subjected to.
He was created like this for a purpose; to make sure that his observers know and accept his superiority.
With a stoic face, he poses mid-motion, facing the direction of the rising sun, leading those behind him — the university management in the main building — towards a new dawn. And it seems as if the university was built around the statue. Steyn is the figure from which everything originates and finds meaning.
Its overemphasised importance belittles every other social object in that space, including new art pieces that were meant to disturb the space and create a new cultural regime. They include Willem Boshoff’s Thinking Stone, a 21-tonne granite rock with petroglyphs resembling those at Driekopseiland near Kimberley, and Noriah Mabasa’s sculpture, Unity is Power, as well as works by Azwifarwi Ragimana, Thomas Kubayi, Willie Bester and Pat Mautloa. Steyn’s presence silences the other voices, and it is the ultimate act of violence to allow it to continue doing so.
The other space on the campus, because it is on the periphery of the old one, is fortunate enough not to be directly affected by Steyn. But this does not take away from the fact that it coexists with a space that is defined by a statue that celebrates oppression and death.
Steyn’s statue must fall, not because it’s a fashionable thing to say, but because its existence on the campus makes everyone who does not believe in what it stands for its subordinate. We no longer exist on campus with our own agency but as unknowing subjects of a man who killed our people.
For the management not to do anything to remove it from the campus is to be violent to the black students on the University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein campus. For what could be more violent than for one not to act when there is a need for them to do so?
Thato Rossouw is a second-year student at the University of the Free State. These are his own views