Statue controversies in South Africa – reimagine/recontextualise/replace

I am sharing a piece written by Dr. Andre Goodrich (South African Anthropologist and author of “Biltong Hunting as a Performance of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa” (2015)) focussing on the statue controversies in South Africa.

andre goodrich

Andre began with this observation on FaCeBOOK

Against my better judgement I tricked myself into agreeing to write something about the statue controversies for the local paper. The copy follows. Whether they print it is another story.

“In 2014 Tokolos Stencils, a Cape Town based group of graffiti activists sprayed the words ‘Disown this heritage’ in red across the base of Cape Town’s Paul Kruger Statue. The point that they were trying to make was that while statues of Kruger and other colonial figures might represent white South Africans’ heritage, black South Africans’ heritage is grounded in a protracted struggle against these figures and the social and political order they signify.

It was, however, Chumani Maxwele’s emptying of a bucket of human faeces onto the Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town’s upper campus on 9 March 2015 and the ensuing media coverage of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement’s successful campaign to have Rhodes removed from UCT that has brought statues to the centre of a much broader discussion of contemporary South Africa. The Anglo Boer War memorial in Uitenhage was spectacularly necklaced on 2 April. On 7 April the Paul Kruger statue in Pretoria’s Church Square was spattered with paint and Port Elizabeth’s horse memorial was broken with a sledgehammer. On 10 April it was Queen Victoria’s turn. Her statue in Port Elizabeth was doused in green paint. It seems as if people all over SA have responded to Tokolos Stencils’s call to disown the heritage these statues represent.

Of course there are those who have felt the need in this period to take ownership of this heritage. Sunette Bridges and Steve Hofmeyr were at the forefront of a defence of what they see as their heritage. Bridges rather unconvincingly chained herself to one of the Church Square statues, sparking an avalanche of ’50 shades of khaki’ memes on social media while Hofmeyr delivered a speech talking up the importance of history to a true civilization. Setting aside the comedy of the chaining, of Hofmeyr’s penchant for malapropisms (his condemnation of the ‘deflowering’ of his heritage) and of their supporters smilingly holding their placards upside down on the front page of Beeld newspaper and we have a matter of some concern. Two relatively small activistic minorities, one wanting statues of colonial and apartheid figures removed, the other wanting them to remain. I think it is safe to say that most South Africans, by contrast, have no strong feelings one way or another, most think of statues as irrelevant.

Slavoj Zizek begins Tarrying with the Negative with the image of the Romanian flag waving after the fall of Ceausescu with the star, the symbol of the communist past cut out, leaving only a hole in the middle of the flag where the star used to be. He invokes this image to discuss the open situation, a situation in which one symbolic order has fallen and not new one has risen yet to take its place. My contention is that the open situation is desirable and for that reason we need to take both of these minorities seriously – regardless of how much we might like or dislike them or how much we may be tempted to mock or dismiss them.

This is why I find the majority attitude that statues are irrelevant particularly disappointing. The most common response seems to be that people should focus on ‘real’ issues, like poverty, inequality, environmental problems, state corruption, crime and so on. This is obviously a logically bankrupt argument as it implies we suspend everything and focus on the ‘real’ issues while ignoring who gets to set up the list of ‘real’ issues. But to simply dismiss it as a bad argument is boring and misses a useful insight, namely that this response shows the potential latent in the open situation created by the statue controversy.

Most of those calling for people to engage in ‘real’ issues and leave the statues alone do not daily call for action on these serious issues. However, a contest in the realm of heritage and symbol has provoked them to do just that, even Chumani Maxwele’s opening salvo on Rhodes gathered the sanitation crisis in Khayelitsha to the controversy. This indicates that statues and memorials, when destabilized, have the power to provoke and gather up public concerns about important material issue faced by South Africans generally. The same response characterized the controversy that sprung up amid the proposed street-name changes in Potchefstroom years ago (Goodrich, A. & Bombardella, P. 2012. Street name-changes, abjection and private toponymy in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Anthropology Southern Africa, 35(1&2): 20-30). While two small groups vociferously defended the outgoing names or their proposed replacements, the majority, from civics organizations to the white middle class felt the exercise to be a waste of money that could be better spent on ‘real’ issues. While there are unavoidable practical reasons to fix street names, there are no such reasons to fix statues. My interest, therefore, is in keeping this open situation open.

The trouble with statues and memorials is that they tend to close the symbolic order. Once they are up on their pedestals they have the effect of concretising one particular story, of fixing in stone, so to speak, one version of the past. Stories about the past do not simply tell us where we come from, they also tell us where we belong and where we should be headed. In other words, stories about the past influence how we understand our present and imagine our future. South Africa’s memorial landscape is unfortunately one that has concretised the social divisions of the colonial and apartheid orders by fixing a monolithic story in terms of which past regimes justified the many lines of separation and inequality we continue to struggle with. Leaving the statues as they are, therefore, closes the open situation in a manner that encloses our ideas of who we are, how we relate to one another, and how we are going to move ahead within the horizons of the symbolic order that gave us the divisions and discriminations we want to get beyond. This is not an option. Replacing them with statues of a new catalogue of national heroes closes the open situation in favour of a new order. This is not an option either as it risks creating the impression that South Africa has transformed when we in fact have a long way to go. Simply removing them and not replacing them seems more sensible, but the cost here is still that the open situation the statue controversy has given us will close and participation in the public realm will dissipate.

So the challenge before us is to figure out how we can replace/reimagine statues in a way that enables them to keep the open situation open. Unstable statues seem to make people uncomfortable enough to take seriously the serious problems. Unsettled symbols from street names to statues seem to gather appeals to confront ‘real’ problems. The good in this situation then is to be found in answering the question of how to reimagine/recontextualise/replace statues and put them in a permanently unstable state that provokes contestation rather than unity. After all, contestation and not unity is what lies at the heart of democracy. Statues and memorials can be sites that as we have already seen in the responses of many gather up general concerns and that can perhaps provoke public engagement with those concerns if they are carefully reinterpreted to do so. The choice we are face with is do we want a static monolithic memorial landscape (removing statues produces the same stasis) or do we want a memorial landscape that provokes us to discuss and debate and demand that general concerns are taken up. This is a huge challenge, but there is no shortage of artists, intellectuals and other potential contributors who can participate in transforming the controversy around statues into the vital agora for a country that is deeply in need of one vis a vis the spread of privatization and the criminalization of public space.”

Also see: tokolos-stencils on tumbr and facebook 

Their mission statement reads:

To terrorise the powers that be, the tokoloshe emerges from obscurity. It reminds South Africans, young and old, that freedom and justice remain elusive unless we are willing to fight for it.

The following pictures was portrayed in media

"Rhodes statue goes but protesters take on other symbols of South Africa's past"

“Rhodes statue goes but protesters take on other symbols of South Africa’s past”

"Memorials to British colonials attacked across South Africa as protesters demand statues honouring 'racist' figures from its past are removed"

“Memorials to British colonials attacked across South Africa as protesters demand statues honouring ‘racist’ figures from its past are removed”

"Rhodes statue removed in Cape Town as crowd celebrates"

“Rhodes statue removed in Cape Town as crowd celebrates”

3 responses to “Statue controversies in South Africa – reimagine/recontextualise/replace

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