top of page

The US and South Africa grapple with statues concretising the past

There’s a reality in the world of statues – most are anachronistic virtually as they’re completed. For many the icons of the past are also skewed by race, politics and other forms of group identity. One person’s statue of hope is another person’s icon of racism or abuse. Across the world statues have been removed in succession battles, or in wars. The removal of Saddam Hussein’s massive statue after his fall in April 2003 will always be associated with the collapse of his government in Iraq. It was also seen as the sign that crusader feet were on the move in the Levant and was part of the radicalisation of Islam. The removal of these icons brings with it the fear of change, but also the anger and emotion which has encapsulated civil wars. The University of Texas removed their three Confederate-era statues in the week of August 21, saying the symbols of white supremacy should not be allowed to be viewed on campus. Despite this, UT authorities ordered they be removed in the early hours of the morning to avoid clashes. Violence broke out in Virginia on August 12 when white nationalists gathered to protest against the planned removal of Confederate leader Robert E Lee’s statue. A woman died when a man, who’s thought to have supported white nationalism, drove into the crowd, injuring more than a dozen people. In post-Apartheid South Africa there’s been increased conflict over the role of statues. Rhodes’ statue on the side of Table Mountain was the centre of battles between students and police, which eventually led to its removal. Many others have been vandalised in South Africa, with the statue painting movement being reported as far away as Swakopmund in Namibia where a German military leader who fought against a local rebellion had his statue damaged by purple dye. But heritage experts say that there’s a danger of forcing people to forget history by not presenting at least part of the past in public. Whereas some statues are perceived to be positive such as Joan of Arc, she technically supported crusades into Islamic areas of the Middle East and she appears as both a hero and a villain depending on which religion you support. One person's statue is another person's symbol of oppression and even evil. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 huge sculptures of Lenin and Stalin that had dominated the skyline in various cities were toppled or removed from their pedestals. Most of these were broken down or melted for their metals. In South Africa the process of re-setting the past has begun with revisionist history now dominating school books. There’s also a growing feeling amongst intellectuals that the symbols of the past should be removed en masse, and this is where the contradiction begins for others who see this as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Respected critic Eusebius McKaiser wrote in 2015 that the issue was about politics and colonialism. “The aesthetic and moral assault on one’s entire being that occurs when a black person walks across a campus covered with statues and monuments that celebrate colonial conquerors as heroes,” he said. In a book that was a precursor to the debate, Professor Brenda Schmahmann investigated how these symbols highlighted the urgency of making changes through proper transformation in places of learning, but this was easier said than done. A respected history lecturer, she pointed out that the issue was being felt throughout South Africa. “I think the sculpture of Rhodes at UCT became in a sense a scapegoat for people’s deep sense of frustration, and probably less with UCT specifically than with a larger society in which the impact of poverty, lack of opportunity and sense of inequity is deeply felt. “But, as I reveal in my book, the removal of art objects from view does not automatically lead to transformative actions,” Schmahmann told Wits Vuvuzela magazine.

There’s always been a connection between the anti-apartheid movement and civil rights movements in the US. After the actions on Rhodes and Wits Campuses, and UCT in the Cape, the call went out in parts of America for statues to be removed.

In the UCT case, the statue of Rhodes was a complicated issue with it being completed by Marion Walgate - a woman. This was unusual and remains unusual in the annals of statue production for historical end and led to gender politics falling foul of race politics.

In the US a similar pressure has grown with the decision to remove Confederate statues which are seen by many to be heros of a struggle, and others as symbols of oppression. With the wounds of an Americna Civil war over the issue seemingly unhealed, this issue will continue to dominate the minds of students and administrators in both countries.

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Pinterest Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon
bottom of page