Colonialism : Rethinking Signs and Symbols in SA’s Public Spaces

Pretoria – Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has called on South Africans to get a fresh take on the signs and symbols in the country’s public spaces.

“We are at the point where we have to rethink our way forward, to do a thorough introspection and retrospection on where we come from. We need to think about how we want our public spaces to look like,” Minister Mthethwa said.

Speaking during the national consultative meeting on the transformation of the heritage sector on Friday in Pretoria, the Minister said decisions made on how the country’s public spaces should look like should be based on the Constitution.

“The debate about the signs and symbols of this country started as early as the dawn of our freedom. It is not a new matter. Beyond the debate, a process started of changing the face, the signs and symbols in country,” Minister Mthethwa said.

He condemned the defacing of statues as the country’s law provided for the removal of statues by following the regulations.

Last week, the statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town following student protests that demanded its removal.

Last Friday, the statue of former British monarch Queen Victoria, which stands in front of the main Nelson Mandela Bay library in the city centre, was vandalised.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi, which is located in Johannesburg’s Gandhi Square, was also vandalised on Sunday. Recently the Paul Kruger statue was vandalised in Church Square, Pretoria.

“… We have laws and regulations. We have to follow these laws no matter how we feel,” the Minister said.

Minister Mthethwa said the country has some museums and memorabilia that represent the new South Africa. He said all South Africans should despise apartheid and agree that it was a bad thing, as it was classified as a crime against humanity by the United Nations.

“We need to be unapologetic about the painful reminders [of our past]; statues of our oppressors should not be large in public institutions. We need to all come to a point to say, these were key advocates of oppression, colonialism and apartheid.

“These were leaders in their free will. They injected this pain we are talking about, which we have to move from,” he said.

Minister Mthethwa said all South Africans, black and white, need to agree that symbols of colonialism are not needed in public spaces.

“There is a fundamental problem we have to confront in our society, and that is around transformation … We can no longer defer that,” he said.

Minister Mthethwa called for all citizens to build a united nation that is non-racial and non-sexist.

Minister Mthethwa’s meeting was aimed at getting to the root of the vandalism of statues and chart a way forward.

The meeting also served as a platform to get public views on the desired heritage landscape for the future generations of the country.

Minister Mthethwa commended the students of the University of Cape Town for raising the issue on Cecil John Rhodes.

Meanwhile, Cabinet has also noted the decision taken by the management of the University of Cape Town to remove the statue of Rhodes from its main campus.

Speaking during at post Cabinet briefing on Friday, Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Jeff Radebe, said South Africa has over the last two decades made huge strides in ensuring that historical symbols reflect the demographics of the country and democratic order.

However, Cabinet acknowledged that the journey of removing historically offensive symbols and names within the country has not moved fast enough.

“Cabinet noted and encourages the current broad debate that has commenced on transformation within our society. Noting that transformation has not been fast enough, we understand the frustration of the students,” Minister Radebe said, encouraging students to follow the processes as defined in the country’s laws.

Cabinet has also called on South Africans to get involved in the on-going processes led by the Department of Arts and Culture on heritage and nation building.

“The National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 outlines the consultative processes that should be followed in the case of a removal and/or relocation of a statue,” the Minister said.