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UKZN historic symbols, statues, artefacts and naming inititiave

Saturday 18 April 2015

By Keyan Tomaselli, UKZN Professor Emeritus; Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg, Keyant@uj.ac.za

Please allow me to respond to this belated if excellent initiative with some general historical background relating to national debates on culture, heritage and monuments that occurred within the newly developing public sphere during the 1990s. These do have direct relevance for the current conjuncture. We need to return to first principles to make sense of the current national moral panic and to help creatively guide it (on the UKZN campuses at least) with regard to broader social justice considerations. The panic needs to be re-articulated into a productive debate that can alert us to inclusive and culturally sensitive outcomes.

During the mid-1990s my UKZN Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS) was employed by CODESSA via the HSRC to research post-apartheid cultural policy, including heritage and monuments policy. This work was informed by international best practice as well as positions that were then being articulated within both the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) prior to 1990 and thereafter, the ANC, in which a United Democratic Front founder, Mewa Ramgobin, who was later to become a senior ANC MP, was a key influencer. Ramgobin additionally had been the facilitator of Gandhi’s passive resistance philosophy in the late 1980s and the he subsequently issued the ANC Southern Natal Region statement on cultural policy that derived from our work here at UKZN (Ramgobin, n.d.).

The cultural policy theory that we drew on for CODESSA was in fact to become the basis of the Mandela government’s cultural policy under the direction of Minister Ben Ngubane of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. As interpreted by CCMS, in brief, the policy: a) recognised the symbolic value of colonial and postcolonial (the period of the Union/Republic) monuments; b) advocated for a discursive re-articulation of these inherited statues and icons; and c) sought to enable inclusion rather than exclusion (see Tomaselli and Mpofu 1997).

When Ramgobin and I (1988) were jointly invited to a Conservation of Culture and monuments conference in Cape Town in 1988, like Mandela a few years later, he took the wind out of the sails of the extreme right wing. Asked “What will you (i.e. the ANC) do with ‘Our’ monuments when you take over?” Ramgobin turned the question back on them: “It’s not what will the ANC do with your monuments, but what will you do with them? Will they be used to continue to signify oppression and dispossession or will you re-articulate them into multicultural symbols of reconciliation?”

The response from the white right wing at the conference was utter astonishment at the way that their question/accusation was re-articulated into an opportunity for reconciliation[1]. The result, the verligtes and left wing radicals won the day and, extraordinarily, the conference issued a consensus statement based on the Freedom Charter (see Coetzee and Van der Waal 1988: 495-501). It took a whole day of the five day meeting for the pro-MDM delegates to negotiate this document clause-by-clause that united – rather than divided – the previously fractional constituencies.

By engaging in a dialectical (thesis-anti-thesis = synthesis) negotiation the conference, astoundingly and in the face of a war situation, agreed on an affirmative policy based on Charterist principles. The past was to be rearticulated into the present, for a post-apartheid future that was barely just a 19 months away. One such early creative attempt in 1995 to rearticulate its monuments was made by the Pretoria City Council (see Tomaselli and Shepperson 1997).

Recent statements warning against the destruction of monuments and statues issued by the Minister of Arts and Culture and some other senior ANC officials like Gwede Mantashe (see Quintal, 2015) do explicitly recall the inclusive cultural policy that inaugurated the post-apartheid era. The Law of Diminishing Returns however replaced what was a previously fruitful policy dialogue with a populist return inaugurated at UCT in early 2015 to a stultifying one-dimensional monologue. UCT – as with UKZN and many other institutions - were unprepared for the new monologue, as they had failed to re-articulate the monuments located on their respective campuses.

Contrast this inertia with the way that Jonathan Jansen took the University of Free State President Kruger statue by the ears and re-articulated this historical figure into a place for dialogue, reconciliation, and as a means of intercultural communication with that university’s staff and students (see also Jansen 2015). This feat is on a par with the Conservation of Culture charter given the appalling racism that had previously characterized UFS’s residences. This statue has thus far graduated undamaged from the past into the present, and hopefully the future also. Consensus cannot be achieved through violence, destruction, defacement and threats issued by opposing constituencies. This is the lesson learned from both the above examples. Indeed, letters to the editor in the Durban press have been very instructive of the meaning of King George V, as an indicator of TB Davis’s benefaction in donating land and a building to what is now UKZN (as did Rhodes with UCT). King George V is not in this history associated with colonialism but with the memory of Davis’s fallen son, killed during World War 1 even if he was fighting for King and Country (see, e.g., Seymour 2015).

The UCT students and the faeces-led moral panic they have engendered across the nation has applied a regressive process which dis-articulates the dialectical potential of monuments as sites for reconciliation, re-articulating them into sites of oppression, emphasizing victimology rather than robust emancipatory dialogue as Ramgobin and early ANC cultural policy had intended. The strategy of the new self-styled victims is to deny previous monologues and oppressions, to kill the social dialectic that could have been engendered by these monuments, and to impose a new single ahistorical interpretation. This requires a crude strategy of ‘doing something to’ (defacement, damage, removal, relocation) an offending monument (as is the UCT response) , rather than working with such statues (and those constituencies that valorise it) in pursuing a re-articulated inclusive democratic vision in which we all move on together – in robust dialogue if necessary.

Here is the problem with historical monologues: – today’s it’s Cecil Rhodes (and King George V), who like so many robber barons (Ford, Carnegie, Rockerfeller etc), bequeathed his fortune for the greater good. How many of today’s robber barons, daily exposed by the media for their dodgy dealings, will donate their wealth for the greater good? None to my knowledge, though a new generation of benefactors is emerging, led by Patrice Motsepe.

It’s Rhodes and King George V and Mahatma Gandhi today, tomorrow it’s the call for the removal of King Shaka, and then Mandela, Biko, then religious icons, and anyone else (including innocent horses) who falls from momentary opportunistic historical favour now and in the future. This othering discourse draws on a xenophobic hatred of difference and the problem takes on international proportions as immigrants from other parts of Africa are turned into refugees, as has occurred in KZN in the last few days.

Today’s icons become tomorrow’s villains, and the sacrificial lambs of monologically-driven detractors. Shaka was disappeared from the new Durban airport well before the Rhodes incident – the decriers of the statue opposed the allegedly ‘soft’ appearance of the Andries Botha re-articulated image. Only the cows remain. Botha’s Durban city elephants had to be re-incarnated because ANC’s one-dimensional vision objected to what they saw as an Inkatha symbol, at great cost to Durban ratepayers and derision of artists everywhere. In the Soviet Union it was Lenin, in Iraq, Saddam, while the Taliban and ISIS have destroyed millennia old religious icons and much worse.

And so the iconic reminders of the tyrants that one of us might ourselves well become if circumstances permit, are gone. The previous tyrants, colonialists and benefactors – if removed - no longer caution and watch over us; neither do they remind us of what not to become. History is not about the past, it’s about the future and what we do with it. Just think of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships. This is a ying-yang relationship that has benefitted thousands in African societies. The Rhodes Trust led the way in re-articulating itself into the future; now students want to drag it back into the past.

That’s the problem with us South Africans. We have forgotten where we are going and how to get there. Some dwell on the destructive path dependencies of the past – others re-interpret these for a productive future.

As the besieged Frankfurt School sociologists and psychologists argued in their attempts to understand the Nazi mind and its genocidal practices, the public sphere, indeed democracy, requires the absolute protection of the social dialectic (thesis-anti-thesis = synthesis). Without the social dialectic debate and democracy cease, a new one-dimensional destructive analysis emerges, and the ability of individuals, communities and social movements to practice empathy is gone, with the dire consequences that have faced the world for so many millennia. The Frankfurt School analysis is also applicable to explaining apartheid as itself a monological analysis on which 40 years of repression were justified. The current discourse is similarly hostile to difference and must be critically engaged in open dialogue.


UKZN should draw from cultural policy best practice and engage in a public critical dialogue on names, naming, monuments, artefacts and statues. These should be considered symbolic and material resources open to dis-articulation from crude meanings and re-articulated via creative dialectical engagement into a new reconciliatory image and social practice for UKZN.


ANC. nd. Cultural Bill of Rights. Mimeo. Issued by M Ramgobin, DAC Southern Natal Region.

Jansen, J. 2015 (April 8). There is a terrifying silence in the storm over statues. Rand Daily Mail http://www.rdm.co.za/politics/2015/...

Johnson, S. 2015 (27 March). Rhodes – Let’s solve this the Mandela way. Rand Daily Mail http://www.rdm.co.za/politics/2015/...

Quintal, G, (2014, 13 April). You can’t take a hammer to history, http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/N...

Seymour, L. 2015 (April 6). UKZN Statue is merely a memorial. The Mercury, p. 7.

Tomaselli, K.G. and Mpofu, A. 1997. The Re-articulation of Meaning in National Monuments. Culture and Policy, 8(3), 57-76.

Tomaselli, K.G. and Ramgobin M. 1988. Culture and Conservation: whose interests? In

Coetzee, I. and Van der Waal, G-M. (eds) 1988. The Conservation of Culture: Changing Context and Challenges. Proceedings of the South African Conference on the Conservation of Culture Cape Town 6-10 June 1988. Pretoria: Conference Organisers, 105-127.

[1] A similar story is told by the director of the Rhodes-Mandela Foundation, Shaun Johnson (2015): “In 2002 Nelson Mandela made a counter-intuitive decision that took my breath away … Mandela‘s decision was to become patron … of a new charitable organisation, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, dedicated to identifying and developing new generations of ethical young African leaders. His founding partner in this venture was to be the Rhodes Trust, responsible for Rhodes Scholarships and modern-day interpreters of the legacy of the controversial, complex historical character of Cecil John Rhodes. Mandela named eminent South African figures as his trustees on a joint board. By then Rhodes had been dead for 100 years, and that indeed was the point. The Rhodes Trustees approached Mandela and his advisers to ask for support in marking the centenary by “giving back” to the continent where Rhodes‘s wealth was made: Africa. …. More than once I was in the room when he said he thought there was little point in discussing history if all we did was complain about people long dead: wherever possible, we had to put history to work for a better future.