Violence, diversity and the commemorative impulse

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Who benefits most from forgetting the past? This is an uncomfortable question that has great pertinence in the current global debate on the fate of the world’s “iron men” — the statues and monuments erected to the slavers, colonialists and imperialists of centuries past.

In cities from Bristol in the United Kingdom to Cape Town in South Africa, many statues stand, or have until recently stood, of men who accumulated great wealth through slavery and other practices and later “redeemed” themselves through acts of philanthropy and beneficence.

In the late 1800s, Edward Colston, prominent British slave trader, made many and varied endowments to the city of Bristol, which today is a multicultural and diverse city whose beauty was undeniably built on the prosperity of the slave trade. Colston was elevated as a public figure worthy of commemoration despite widespread anti-slavery sentiment since the erection of his statue in 1895. It was only in 2020 that Colston was finally toppled from his pedestal.

A shorter period of about 80 years passed between the erection and removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. Erected in 1934 against the backdrop of the beautiful mountains of Cape Town and the gracious neo-classical edifice of the then Jameson Hall of the University of Cape Town, it became the subject of social activism in 2015 through the #RhodesMustFall movement: memories of past violence came to be re(membered) because it was clear that these still matter. Since then Rhodes has been removed and replace by a statue of Sarah Baartman.

Elsewhere in South Africa as old monuments were removed, new monuments have been erected, such as the Constitution’s monument outside the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch and the Tree of Knowledge outside the Faculty of Education at the University of the Free State. Both celebrate affirming and inclusive values, but also critique old and violent practices against women and subordinated or excluded groups.

At NWU (North-West University), opportunities for consultation were created as regards the replacement of old statues and the erection of new monuments aligned to the merged institution’s aspirations of becoming a more inclusive learning environment.

Inclusion goes beyond awareness of injustice

Inclusion involves awareness not only of injustice, but also an impulse to right it, to act to counter violence and gender discrimination. Not approving of a past practice has to be linked, in terms of social justice, to present action. This is why questioning historical monuments is only part of a process of creating something new and hopefully better.

The new century has seen public accountability concepts move, for progressive reasons, into conversations about culture and belonging, marginalisation and violence. Concepts such as fair trade, restitution, social justice and the common good have moved from the margins of the Left into the glossy columnist’s commentary about corporate social responsibility.

I recall reading around 2015 of student recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship articulating the complexity of resistance to what Rhodes had stood for — the imperial dream of expansion through treaty or conquest, and grossly unequal trading arrangements with indigenous and subordinated groups.

That spectacular accretion of wealth arose not from any concept of fair trade as applied to coffee harvests, or common good as applied to North-South or South-South trade relations. It arose from a violence that was brutal at its base practices and toxic at its discursive tips: it enslaved and then exploited, it incarcerated, it gave impetus for violence in the home, and for the exploitation of women’s labour.

What becomes clear is that contemporary discourse with terms such as fair trade or restitution could not have existed within the discourses of 19th century imperialism and the colonising project. And contemporary concepts have, and should have, an impact on evaluating the legacies of the past. The past is not a sacred land and indeed as Karen Barad suggests, the past is never quite past.

The dilemma of public complicity

The question to ask about historical wealth, whether European, American or anywhere else for that matter, is whether it was built on entitlement and public complicity in past practices and consequences.

And herein lies the dilemma: a generous benefactor such as Rhodes stands not simply for himself, but also for a largely invisible sector of the public whose way of life was generally elevated (and remains elevated still) as a result of those energies that created advantage and privilege through barbarism.

That King Leopold II never entered the Congo and that Rhodes lived in Cape Town is irrelevant. Both sanctioned and benefited from colonisation. Whether perpetrated in the name of a king, a civilization or a state, violence was legalised for the purposes of extraction of wealth. It is for this reason that indignation persists, especially among people dispossessed by the history created by these iron men.

When you stand with your back to the palace and apologise for the dynasty that built it on slaving profit, without, in that very same breath, addressing the need for reparation, the valuable gesture of apology is diminished. It becomes an opportunity lost: a regret expressed for burning the field last season does not fill a granary now and taking stuff is often accompanied by taking lives.

Dealing with the history of violence, whether systemic violence, or group-focused violence, such as against women or LGBTIQ+ persons, is not so much the erasure of history’s treasured monuments as it is the elimination of a representation of historic humiliation. That noted, evolving public consciousness is not a perfect means either of absolving or understanding past violence, because even within historically marginalised or oppressed groups, some “benefitted” more than others. Within the context of an imperial and colonial past, white women benefited more than black women, for example.

History does not excuse brutality

In many modern nations, statues remain erect even though the gulags and violence behind them remain unaccounted for. The reason is that the state valorises past violence and considers itself the primary beneficiary thereof, on behalf of the people then and now.

History might be useful as a means of contextualising the person, but it by no means excuses, even with benefaction, the brutality or the violence underpinning the Colston or Rhodes wealth, or the states that supported them.

In removing past symbols that are now odious to a public imagination, we should simultaneously affirm those characteristics worthy still of emulation: for example, exemplary justice, generosity, selflessness and courage. There might be more statues erected to illustrious women, more to heroic persons of colour, maybe even some to courageous LGBTIQ+  persons.

Perhaps a measure of whether civilisations have advanced is not the comfortable forgetting of the past, nor simply the removal of the iron man. Perhaps it is rather the readiness and openness to re-estimate the commemorative impulse for our collective present.  

The complexity of human experience over time requires an opportunity to reconsider and if needs be, even replace our monuments, especially where the violence of the past has been used as a means to create benefit or privilege.

Those men of iron, if they are allowed to stand at all, should be remembered for who they were (and still are) — and not for the beneficence that later cloaked their acts of violence and oppression.

Professor Robert Balfour is Deputy Vice-Chancellor:Teaching-Learning at NWU’s Potchefstroom Campus

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