Every morning on my way to the office, I pass this imposing figure. Elevated on a granite plinth in front of the main building on the Bloemfontein campus of the University of the Free State (UFS), cast in bronze, more than twice the size of a person, the statue of Marthinus Theunis Steyn is, by all accounts, an impressive work of art.
Unlike Cecil John Rhodes, who has become the embodiment of colonialism in South Africa, history paints the last president of the independent Orange Free State a little more amicably: Steyn was an outspoken anti-imperialist, a pacifist who tried until the very end to avoid war with Britain, and a humanitarian who did a lot for Boer women and children after the war.
But he was also the leader of a republic that didn’t acknowledge the rights of all its ethnic groups. From a modern-day human rights perspective, his Free State was decidedly unequal and unjust.
In its recent report, the ministerial task team on the transformation of the heritage landscape points out that statues are never “innocent pieces of architecture”. They embody a strong “symbolic power” and project “the foundational values of the state and those in power”. It’s never about the person alone, but about the values the person represents.
Situated where it is — in front of the building housing the university’s executive — the question is whether we, as the leadership of this institution, align ourselves with these values. And if there’s any doubt, how should we consider changing the status quo?
Removal of statues in the past
As South Africans, we are acutely aware of how unhappiness about statues and what they represent has been dealt with on our university campuses in the past.
Statues have been defaced, damaged and toppled by protestors — not only in South Africa, but around the world. It happened with the statue of CR Swart, the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, on the UFS’s Bloemfontein campus and with the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
There is, of course, a legitimate driving force behind students’ conduct: frustration about the perceived slow pace of transformation.
But what should also be considered is the heritage legislation that is in place to protect symbols that hold historical value and significance — specifically aimed at preserving our country’s cultural heritage for all its citizens.
At the UFS, discussions about the possible repositioning of the Steyn statue date as far back as 2003. In January this year, the university’s integrated transformation plan was launched, and the statue was identified as a priority by the work stream dealing with “names, symbols and spaces”.
Earlier this year, the student community, through the student representative council (SRC), once again asked for the statue to be removed. It was clear that it made certain students feel unwelcome because it represented a period in history that they did not feel part of.
I realised the urgency of the matter and appointed a special task team to fast-track the review of the statue’s position. Four options had to be considered during the review process: retention of the statue in its current position; reinterpretation; relocation on campus; and relocation to a site off campus.
The task team, made up of representatives of various campus communities, appointed an independent heritage consultant to conduct a heritage impact assessment, as prescribed by the heritage legislation, who consulted widely and gathered qualitative data.
This encompassed a two-month public participation process. People were invited to comment on the position of the statue and suggestions, such as erecting a giant reflective column in front of the statue, in effect erasing it from a frontal view of the main building, were made. Several questions (in English, Afrikaans and Sesotho) about the statue and the person it represents, cement benches to invite reflection and a suggestion box for comments were also raised. In addition, I also had individual meetings with relevant role players, including members of the Afrikaner community on campus, the SRC and alumni. Robust discussion sessions were facilitated on campus and several opinion articles were carried widely in the media.
Because there is no precedent for such a process under current South African legislation, the task team was guided at all times by principles of fairness, inclusivity and objectivity.
The task team has now presented the university’s executive with a report and a final decision on the position of the statue will be made during a university council meeting on November 23.
What we learned
I have repeatedly been asked whether the time, effort and resources we’ve poured into the process of deciding the statue’s future have been worth it. My answer is consistently a resounding “yes”. Where discussions sometimes became one-sided and overbearing, we used it as an opportunity to lay down the rules for respectful debating as a quid pro quo for future discussions on any matter.
In short: the two-month public participation period was a fruitful time of discussion, reflection and communication.
Whatever the final decision on the Steyn statue, it is bound to dissatisfy some. That much is unavoidable. But I believe that this should not inevitably lead to division on our campuses. I see the wake of the statue journey as an opportunity to foster a new university citizenship based on the value of caring — a value that we all treasure.
The past few months have given us a chance to think deeply about what it truly means to care; also, to reflect on how we should apply this value so that we can be a university where equality, social justice, tolerance and forward-lookingness are actively lived out every day. A place where everyone truly feels welcome — and involved.
Francis Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of Free State