By Sonwabile Mancotywa
This being a heritage month, I’m reminded of an incident that happened fifteen years back on the same month. While premier of Free State, Terror Lekota removed the statue of Hendrik Verwoerd, which had been mounted in front of the building that housed the provincial administration. Lekota apparently found the mere sight of Verwoerd, to which he was subjected every time he showed up for work, quite offensive. Hardly anyone, especially within the black community, could blame him. Verwoerd was the brains behind apartheid. Black people celebrated the removal of the statue. Some reportedly danced on its head, in the same way the Iraqis did on a statue of Saddam Hussein following his toppling.
Afrikaners were enraged. A group of them stormed Lekota’s office, demanding that the statue be re-installed. They seemed to have been banking on Lekota’s reputation as a man of reconciliation. Earlier he had remonstrated with his then ANC comrades at a regional conference for not singing the Afrikaans version of the national anthem. That day, however, Lekota was in no reconciliatory mood. He told the fuming Afrikaners that Verwoerd was a despicable man, who didn’t deserve any public honours. Then he promptly chased them out of his office. That statue hasn’t been seen in public since then.
Lekota’s stance on the Afrikaner heritage was inconsistent. He insisted that his comrades learnt and sang the Afrikaans version of the national anthem, yet he removed the statue of the man whose vile achievements are extolled by those verses. Frankly, the inconsistency on this subject went beyond Lekota. Government did not have a policy on this. President Zuma is greeted by the statues of apartheid icon General Louis Botha every morning he turns up for work at the Union Buildings, just like Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki before him. The same figure stares down at the president, his executive and the entire ANC parliamentary representatives as they come into parliament. Most black people still do not understand why our public spaces are filled up by statues of apartheid icons. They wish the statues could suffer the same fate as the DF Malan statue in Pretoria, which simply collapsed right deep into an open ground — some kind of a forced burial. Poetic justice, blacks exclaimed.
The National Heritage Council is of the view that all statues that embody our apartheid past, ghastly as it was, should remain where they are. Their sight does indeed invoke unpleasant memories among black people. But, removing such statues from our public space smacks of an attempt to erase the apartheid chapter out of our history. This would be disingenuous. It would demand of us to pretend that apartheid never happened. Such pretence would never bring us any consolation. Memories of apartheid are irrepressible even in the absence of apartheid monuments. One does need a Verwoerdian statue to be reminded of apartheid. Everything around us is a reminder of our apartheid past, from the continuing residential segregation to income inequalities and the sheer poverty of black people. All these have their origin in the racial policies of apartheid.
Most importantly, failure to remember our apartheid history may predispose us to break the promise we made ourselves at the birth of our new democracy. Nelson Mandela uttered the words, as we watched him take the oath to lead us into the new dawn: “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Keeping that promise demands that we never forget. The memory of death, banishment, imprisonment, torture and sheer suffering is our shield against re-living that very past we detest so much. We must let that memory live alongside the new memories we’re creating every day as we build upon this beautiful experiment that is our non-racial democracy.
We would not be the first to have the new and the old memories embodied in the collective psyche of our new nation. Germany led the way in this respect. Monuments of their Nazi past, which tell of one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century ie the systematic slaughter of six million Jews, abound in that country. The Germans even reminded the whole world of this ghastly past during the recent Soccer World Cup. They displayed it prominently for all visitors to see as they came to watch the game of soccer. The US, after many years of denial, constructed a museum that reminds them of the enslavement of Africans which resulted in the death of millions of people and the continued suffering of people of African descent. Rwanda resolved to preserve and exhibit the skulls of the million or so Tutsis killed by the Hutu militia. All these serve as reminders to the people of these countries of what they should never repeat. They reinforce their commitment to continue building a just and human-rights oriented society. It ought not to be any different with us. We too are guilty of the same tragedies against our own and will do well to emulate the fine examples set by these countries.
We, as a country, have been slow in following suit. Heritage hasn’t received sufficient attention and financial resources. Historical buildings are commercialised. Port Elizabeth’s Sanlam Building, for instance, has fallen in the hands of estate agents looking to make profit. This could be a monument that reminds us of the torture of political activists, a gross violation of human rights. It was the centre of torture and detention for the entire Eastern Cape. The gruesome beating that led to the death of Steve Biko began in that building. Political activists, such as George Botha, were thrown to their death through the windows of that building. Those who survived death, like Moki Cekisani, still bear the scars they sustained from the torture that happened in that building. The police beat up Cekisani until he lost his hearing. These are things we should never allow ourselves to forget.
Understandably, such memories evoke trauma, especially because they are still so fresh in our minds. But, we are a country that is not deterred by discomfort. Our democracy was constructed on unpleasant compromises. We made them because it was necessary for the new society to be born. Its sustenance depends on not forgetting what was. Ours should be a constant battle against forgetfulness.
Sonwabile Mancotywa is the chief executive of the National Heritage Council of South Africa