History does not change when the location of a statue does

By Andrew Louw, MPL, DA Provincial Leader:

The following is an extract of a speech delivered today by the provincial leader of the Democratic Alliance, Andrew Louw, at the Provincial Dialogue on the Transformation of the Heritage Sector with focus on Statues, Symbols and Place Names that define our Public Spaces.

Heritage and history is often regarded as a sensitive topic. South Africa’s history of apartheid injustice is one that the Democratic Alliance will never celebrate. We believe that apartheid was an evil that cannot be justified. As many of us were directly or indirectly affected by this cancer, we want this beautiful province of ours to be free from racial hatred and cultural animosity. We must find a way forward, together, as residents deciding on the heritage sector.

Statues, names and symbols matter.

For example, the Honoured Dead Memorial is not there to beautify the traffic circle; it is there to recognise the sacrifice made by soldiers in the Siege of Kimberley. When your history, your language and your heroes are celebrated, it serves as an official recognition of your humanity. The importance of this official recognition cannot be overstated, especially given South Africa’s history for human rights abuses. Any community must value the humanity, the history and the heritage of all its residents.

Die onderwerp van ons gedeelde geskiedenis, ons gedeelde menswees, is ‘n kwessie wat katvoet benader moet word. Ons kan nie die onlangse geskiedenis ongedaan maak deur standbeelde te verwyder en name uit die geskiedenisboeke te vee nie.

But we can portray the triumph of justice and democracy over injustice and oppression by showing, through statuary, the progress of humanity in South Africa. We cannot erase the past, but we can learn from it.

Soos wat die Suid-Afrikaanse digter N.P. van Wyk Louw dit gestel het – ons moet leef in ‘n bestendige debat met die verlede. ‘n Bestendige debat vereis geduld en ‘n soeke na ‘n gedeelde visie, nie ‘n destruktiewe neiging om alles plat te sloop nie.

We cannot change our history by hiding the statues. The facts do no change because the location of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue does. The destruction of monuments is indeed the destruction of constitutional values. Our history is worthy of protection and should not be reduced to a contest to see who can vandalise the most statues.

Instead of removing monuments blindly, we must incorporate the past into an inclusive vision for a shared future – a future based on the ideals of freedom, fairness and opportunity. A fair society demands that public spaces must include all residents, with statues and symbols that reflect the shared values of a democratic South Africa.

An inclusive vision can best be determined by an inclusive, constructive dialogue.

Planning public spaces that embraces the heritage of all residents should be part of the standard municipal spatial planning. The views of residents must be known and must form part of the final decisions.

Local government must respond to the needs and the desires of its residents.

It is good to note that the Sol Plaatje Municipality has taken the initiative to get a report on the monuments and memorials in Kimberley. Zuri Concepts and Projects made recommendations on whether or not statues should stay or go. But ultimately, it is not for a company of consultants to decide what happens. It is for the residents of Kimberley to decide how our shared public spaces will look.

Geen besluit moet oorhaastig geneem word nie en die proses van openbare deelname wat die Wet op Nasionale Erfenishulpbronne voorgeskryf, moet gevolg word. Jy word nie een oggend wakker, besluit om ‘n standbeeld te skuif en dan is die standbeeld teen sonsondergang op ‘n nuwe plek nie. Die inwoners moet kans gegee word om hul menings te lug.

The National Heritage Resources Act, and all its regulations, must be followed.

Let me take the example of the Miners’ Memorial, which is also known as the Diggers’ Fountain. Zuri Concepts recommends that the memorial must be moved, as it does not reflect the oppression of African miners. The memorial is a tribute to Ernest Oppenheimer, who was the first mayor of Kimberley and later represented the town in Parliament.

Now, as with any public figure, there will be conflicting memories of Ernest Oppenheimer. Some will remember him as the co-creator of a diamond cartel; others will remember him as a leader in social responsibility – he was among the first mine bosses to insist on providing adequate houses for black mine workers at copper mines in Zambia. During forced relocations in the 1950s, he gave the City of Johannesburg R6 million to construct 24 000 homes for displaced families.

The fact also remains that the Miners’ Memorial was commissioned by the son of Ernest Oppenheimer as a tribute to his father.

The miners shown in the Miners’ Memorial are prototypes, representatives of the five mines in Kimberley and not representatives of a specific ethnicity or culture. There are a number of alternatives to the removal of the statue. One of the alternatives is the re-dedication of the fountain. Instead of honouring the companies, we can honour the miners who brought forth the diamonds from the soil and who aided the development and growth of the diamond industry.

The Democratic Alliance advises that caution must be used when making a decision. The Miners’ Memorial is a tribute to a father from a son.

Aside from the laws and regulations which must be followed as a matter of course, one should consult with the Oppenheimer family on the future of the statue. Indeed, before any final decision is made on the future of any statue, one should consult the families involved. It would be grossly wrong for a consulting company to have the final say.

As with any other statue, the views of the residents must be made known and we must cherish our heritage.

Nobody must be made to feel excluded from this discussion. And we must settle this debate on the heritage sector in the spirit of reconciliation.