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15 July 2024

South Africa’s historical and contemporary statues: a public and political battleground

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Defaced statue of Louis Botha outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in 2015. The wreaths were placed on the defaced statue by members of AfriForum. Photo by HelenOnline, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In early 2022, the South African Parliament complex in the City of Cape Town was set alight and severely damaged in the fire. A few months later, two men and a woman were arrested for defacing a statue of Louis Botha, which stands outside the parliament complex. This was not the first time this statue had drawn attention. In 2014, Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) leader Julius Malema commented on the statue saying, “Louis Botha is not our hero and cannot be a hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger‚ who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs.” Similarly, in June 2020, protests outside parliament called for the statue’s removal.

In 2024, the reconstruction of South Africa’s Parliament has begun. To inform the public about reconstruction timelines and new design concepts, Secretary to Parliament, Xolile George, held a press briefing on 9 May 2024. During the question-and-answer session, he was asked about the future of the Louis Botha statue. George explained that the design team was being guided by heritage legislation and had been tasked with carefully considering how historical and contemporary symbols would function in the space while managing the tensions of the past and present. Included in this task was deciding where to place the bust of Nelson Mandela, which had been exhibited in front of the National Assembly, and whether and where other contemporary statues should be displayed.

Public and political voices, like those opposing the Louis Botha statue, are an important part of a larger debate about how nations like South Africa should address their complex histories while meeting the broader public’s expectations. To understand these expectations, the HSRC’s 2015 and 2017 South African Social Attitude Surveys (SASAS) gathered quantitative data on what public perceptions were at a time when debates surrounding statues were ignited by the #RhodesMustFall movement.

Perceptions on what should happen to these statues ranged from calls for destroying them to support for maintaining them (Figure 1). The majority perspective, which was that ‘they should be left alone’ remained relatively consistent across both survey rounds. The second most common opinion, that ‘they should be removed and placed in a museum’ also remained stable. While fewer people selected these as their dominant preferences in 2017, they remained the top-ranked options. Other options increased slightly between the survey rounds, but the rank order remained unchanged.

Figure 1. Public preferences relating to statues of apartheid and colonial leaders, 2015 and 2017 (%)

Source: HSRC SASAS 2015 and 2017

In both surveys, opinions on the fate of statues differed greatly among races. For example, the removal of the statues remained the most popular perspective among black Africans in both 2015 and 2017 with variations in what should be done with the statues thereafter. In contrast, most of the white population advocated for leaving the statues alone.

One notable change between 2015 and 2017 was the decrease in the share of Indian/Asian and white adults wanting to maintain the statues, dropping by 16 percentage points (from 49% to 33%) and 17 percentage points (from 61% to 44%), respectively. For Indian/Asian adults, the decline was accompanied by a rise in support for having the statues removed. Among white adults, there was a mixture of growing support for replacement with statues of struggle heroes, destroying them, and a rise in indifference.

Perspectives surrounding the maintenance or removal of statues are heavily influenced by South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history. In a recent article, HSRC senior research specialist Dr Fubah Alubafi and colleagues presented qualitative perspectives on the statue debate based on earlier interviews with students and heritage practitioners. For some participants, these statues were cherished landmarks and important relics of the past that warranted preservation. One student noted:

“We cannot build a new society by destroying our history. The past and the present are inseparable.” (Ntombi, 47 years old)

Conversely, others felt that these statues offered a skewed representation of history and evoked memories of oppression and discrimination.

“The statues and monuments of colonial and apartheid heroes and heroines must be removed and burned to make our streets and public spaces welcoming to us and our visitors. We cannot be in the present and still live in our unjust historical pasts.” (Mulalo, 28 years old)

Alubafi highlighted the importance of shifting historical narratives towards the decolonial gaze – a way of viewing history that reflects the history and attitudes of colonised people rather than those of Western colonisers. In a country like South Africa, where systemic oppression is woven into its past, decolonial theologians believe that historical narratives can be shifted by encouraging a decolonial gaze to promote national reconciliation, healing and unity.

For example, the South African Government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), has actively engaged in promoting the decolonial gaze in the cultural landscape by constructing statues and monuments that celebrate anti-colonial and anti-apartheid icons. 

In 2004, the government erected the Freedom Park Heritage Site in Pretoria to commemorate those who fought in the struggle to end apartheid. This site was strategically positioned near the Voortrekker Monument, which is dedicated to the white Afrikaans Voortrekkers who undertook an arduous journey north from Cape Colony to South Africa’s interior. Over the past few decades, the government has commissioned and erected dozens of bronze statues representing anti-apartheid struggle heroes, starting in the Groenkloof Nature Reserve (GNR) near Freedom Park. These statues represent the broader historical narrative of South Africa, including the fight for democracy and the fall of the apartheid era.

Some participants interviewed by Alubafi for the study viewed the statues of struggle heroes in a positive light, believing they helped to reverse the colonial gaze.

“If I compare the GNR statues and monuments with the Voortrekker Monument, I see myself and that of the majority of South Africans reflected [more] at the GNR statues park than at the Voortrekker Monument. The GNR park tells me that I am living in the present and that I have a voice.” (Makitla, 33 years old)

Others felt that the construction of new statues was not enough to ensure a reversal of the colonial gaze.

“Constructing new statues and monuments in honour of struggle heroes and heroines is desirable, while retaining historical statues and monuments in honour of colonial and apartheid heroes and heroines is undesirable to South Africa’s cultural health” (Chauke, 40 years old)

Creating contemporary monuments that reflect South Africa’s freedom struggle could help to reshape the country’s historical narrative, enhancing national pride and identity. Yet, the SASAS surveys show that over the three-year period, the idea of erecting statues of struggle icon statues alongside historical ones was the least popular option among respondents.

Moreover, such initiatives may disproportionally benefit the ANC party by solidifying their role as leaders in the struggle for democracy and national transformation. ‘The ANC [government]’s agenda for decolonial politics through decolonising the cultural landscape might be a mere state apparatus for masking a neo-colonial elitist agenda of a failed state,’ write Alubafi and colleagues in the article. In support of this position, most participants who were loyal to the ANC cited their commitment to issues of cultural transformation, such as the GNR statues and monument park, as a reason for being so.

Contributions to the statue debate made by Alubafi, his colleagues, and the SASAS findings have important practical implications for the future of statues like Louis Botha. These insights also stimulate ongoing and global debates surrounding what to do with colonial or historically discriminatory legacies. Finally, by exposing the complexities and political influences related to this issue, the South African public can better understand their stance, their demands, and their electoral influence.

Research contacts:

Dr Fubah Alubafi (senior research specialist) and Dr Benjamin Roberts (research director) in the HSRC’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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