South African statues don’t fall

Let’s look at the facts. The statue of Marthinus Theunis Steyn, now removed from the University of the Free State is to be relocated to another area in Bloemfontein, South Africa. This process followed dialogue after dialogue after dialogue.

Behind the scenes was the work of the Integrated Transformation Plan (ITP), adopted officially by the university Council in March 2017. I joined one of the transformation committees on 21 May 2019 with the responsibility of reviewing names, symbols and spaces at the institution. Foremost was the Steyn statue.

The work of this committee, as I have been cautioned, is confidential. This worries me because for a long time I was the only student member of this committee who was not also a member of the Student Representative Council. More than this, a lot of detailed information on the process for the removal and relocation of the statue, including its costs, is held secretly by this committee and university management structures. I believe that this information should be freely and openly accessible to the public. After all, we want to look at the facts.

The very incorporation of this committee manifests a centralisation of the university’s powerful groups meeting to decide how to advance the liberation of the powerless.

Tshiamo Malatji, Why Statues Don’t Fall (2019)

Is Relocation Good Enough?

Relocation is a popular solution. It was supported by Afrikaner student group, AfriForum Youth and by various multiracial student structures. In fact, this decision was taken after a consultation process which was open to the entire university community.

From an ideological point of view, however, the question is not addressed simply because the answer is popular. For many, relocation was not their demand but something they were willing to settle with. It is easier to simply accept relocation and claim a political victory then it is to push for one’s real demands and fail. After all, if someone wants to advance in politics, they need to be seen as strong and victorious. The political actor will jump at any opportunity to claim any easy victory. The relocation of the statue is one such easy victory.

Students, including political formations definitely played a role in pressuring the institution to act but ultimately, the power laid in two processes. The first was the internal institutional process, void of student voice, and the second was a governmental process under the National Heritage Resources Act [No. 25 of 1999] (NHRA).

I will be unable to express much detail about the internal process. First, I joined late after process had already begun. Second, I am bound to keep information confidential. My position is that this information should be publicly released. Let’s at least analyse the facts of the governmental process.

What is National Heritage?

Underpinning this process is this very important question. Is a statue a form of heritage? If so, are all statues a form of heritage?

The simple answer to whether a statue is heritage, according to national legislation, is yes. The simple answer to whether this applies to all statues is based squarely on the capacities and interests of lobby groups.

Looking generally at the NHRA, Section 3(3) effectively declares many statues as part of the National Estate:

(3) Without limiting the generality of subsections (1) and (2), a place or object is to be
considered part of the national estate if it has cultural significance or other special value
because of—
(a) its importance in the community, or pattern of South Africa’s history;
(b) its possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of South Africa’s
natural or cultural heritage;
(c) its potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of
South Africa’s natural or cultural heritage;
(d) its importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular
class of South Africa’s natural or cultural places or objects;
(e) its importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a
community or cultural group;
(f) its importance in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical
achievement at a particular period;
(g) its strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group
for social, cultural or spiritual reasons;
(h) its strong or special association with the life or work of a person, group or
organisation of importance in the history of South Africa; and
(i) sites of significance relating to the history of slavery in South Africa.

Section 3(3) of the National Heritage Resources Act [No. 25 of 1999]

This very broad understanding of heritage does include statues like the Steyn or Rhodes monuments. If I, or anyone, were to apply these conditions, I would conclude that these statues should be part of the national estate. Should the legislation be this broad? That is a very good question. I think we need to think more deeply on whether this legislation should be amended. It always helpful to review our thoughts on heritage and how we should define it.

By thinking deeply, we will either affirm our previous decision or find cause to change it. However, there is no harm in evaluating. For now, let’s at least understand how the current process responds to a different understanding of heritage.

What is the process to remove a statue?

If we disagree with any specific place or object being part of the national estate, the NHRA has multiple processes which can be followed, mostly an appeals process explained in Section 49.

By trying to remove the statue, we would be doing what the NHRA calls a “development”.

‘‘development’’ means any physical intervention, excavation, or action, other
than those caused by natural forces, which may in the opinion of a heritage
authority in any way result in a change to the nature, appearance or physical
nature of a place, or influence its stability and future well-being, including—
(a) construction, alteration, demolition, removal or change of use of a place
or a structure at a place;
(b) carrying out any works on or over or under a place;
(c) subdivision or consolidation of land comprising, a place, including the
structures or airspace of a place;
(d) constructing or putting up for display signs or hoardings;
(e) any change to the natural or existing condition or topography of land; and
(f) any removal or destruction of trees, or removal of vegetation or topsoil;

Section 2 (viii) of the NHRA.

There is an order of no development for all heritage sites, even if ownership of the site changes. That means the only way to legally remove a statue is to apply under the NHRA. One should send a request to their provincial heritage authority or the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). This authority is the body that approved the statue forming part of the national estate in the first place.

An application for development is likely to be denied by this authority because the process requires them to consider the “cultural significance” of the place or object in assessing the appeal and it specifically must consider representations from conversation bodies and other interested parties, like the owners of that site. More than this, this was the very body that decided to make it form part of the national estate in the first place.

That is ridiculous. The same body that decided a statue is to be considered heritage is the same body we appeal to in order to request that a statue no longer be considered heritage. It is very circular and obvious that this body is not likely to change its decision. After all, if you notice, the same criteria is used for the appeal as was used for the original decision. So why should the decision change?

Granted, a provincial heritage authority (or SAHRA) could change their minds. Perhaps, they applied the legislation incorrectly in the original decision. Perhaps, they read into the legislation differently this time. Perhaps, social pressure makes them cave. There are many factors which explain why people in positions of power take whatever decisions they take. But assuming they did not make an error and they understand heritage the same way they always have, their decision should not change. We are appealing to the very people we are appealing against.

If the provincial heritage authority (or SAHRA) does not accept one’s appeal, one can appeal directly to their provincial or the national government. The government will create a tribunal of three experts. This tribunal will consider three things:

(3) The tribunal contemplated in subsection (2), in considering the appeal referred to
it by the Minister or the MEC, must have due regard to—
(a) the cultural significance of the heritage resources in question;
(b) heritage conservation principles; and
(c) any other relevant factor which is brought to its attention by the appellant or the heritage resources authority.

Section 49(3) of the NHRA

Again, the conditions for this final appeal are exactly the same as the conditions of the original decision and the primary appeal. If indeed, these three experts are experts, I would argue that their decision is likely to mirror the decision taken by the provincial heritage authority (or SAHRA). After all, they are all considering the same criteria. The NHRA is vague on how the three experts are chosen and what it means by experts. I can imagine that who the government chooses can change what decisions they make. Hypothetically, they could choose three people who all believe these statues should not be part of the national estate (for whatever reason) and the appeal could be successful as a result.

However, to place the entire final appeal on the whims of three experts, chosen arbitrarily by the government is very odd. Those experts are likely to be chosen politically with a certain final result already in mind. So any decision can be reached based on which experts are chosen to reach that decision.

This was exactly the case with the removal of the Steyn statue, as reported here. The Free State Provincial Heritage Resources Authority (FSPHA) initially granted UFS permission to remove the state, then overturned this in appeal. This was a predictable outcome. So, UFS wrote to the provincial government in the Free State to request a tribunal of three experts. That tribunal overturned the decision of the provincial heritage authority.

So how did these three experts come to the decision to remove the statue? This is unknown, because it is not publicly available. The FSPHA and the SAHRA websites have no information on this process or on anything related to the Steyn statue. It is all clouded in secrecy. The only public comment we have is from the UFS which states:

“The findings of the Tribunal Committee include, inter alia, that the university has followed the correct application procedure for the permit, that a proper public participation process was followed that was more comprehensive than required by law, and that no procedural unfairness took place during the public participation process. The Tribunal Committee furthermore found that the decision by the FSPHRA on 30 April 2019 to issue the permit was correct, and that the Appeals Committee appointed by the FSPHRA erred in its decision to uphold the appeal. As a pre-condition, the Tribunal Committee also determined that a conservation plan must be prepared by the university in order to address the process of relocating the statue.”

UFS statement on the findings o the Tribunal Committee.

Again, I recommend that these findings be made public so that we have all the facts. Another concern is the costs involved in all of these processes. Rumours have circulated that this process cost the institution upward of a R1 million. This needs to be confirmed.

This entire process was long spanning from dialogues in 2015 to a decision to remove the statue in 2018 to the finality of a decision in June 2020 — five years later. This timeline can further be expanded by including all pre-2015 conversation on the statue which started when Black students were first allowed to study at the institution.

What about destroying statues?

This is very unlikely, given the above process. There is immense difficulty in just motivating the relocation of a statue. There is no way this process has room for the destruction of a statue. In a book, titled Transformation and legitimation in post-apartheid universities : reading discourses from ‘Reitz’ by Dionne van Reenen and JC van der Merwe, it is revealed that the statue of Charles Robbert Swart was relocated to a farm where learners are taught history with use of the statue. In the minds of students, this statue was destroyed by protesting students on 23 February 2016, as discussed here.

“A smaller group of about eight went back to the statue to finish off what the rest had set out to do: They dismantled it and threw it into a pond outside the building, which was known as the CR Swart building.”

People, Not Stones report

Even in this case, the statue was not destroyed. It was relocated. The students who participated in the removal were also fined. Perhaps, there is no way to destroy a statue.

The role of lobby groups

The NHRA allows for conservation bodies to register their interest in heritage sites. The SAHRA must maintain this list of bodies.

(b) maintain a list of conservation bodies which have, in accordance with
regulations by the heritage resources authority concerned, registered their
interest in—
(i) a geographical area; or
(ii) a category of heritage resources;

Section 25(1)(b) of the NHRA

Whenever a decision is to be taken, they need to notify these bodies and take into consideration their submissions.

(c) must notify all conservation bodies which have, in terms of section 25(1)(b),
registered their interest in the geographical area in which the proposed
heritage site is situated, and give them at least 60 days to make submissions
regarding the proposed declaration, amendment or withdrawal, and in the case
of the owner, to propose conditions under which the action will be acceptable.
All submissions must be considered by the heritage resources authority before
a final decision is made;

Section 27(8)(c) of the NHRA.

So, lobby groups have immense sway on the decisions taken by provincial heritage authorities (or the SAHRA). The best way to counter this, as UFS did, was to have a very expensive and expansive public participation process to counter the views of the lobby groups. All the submissions from stakeholders, including students, were all compiled in response to claims from lobby groups. Ultimately, the tribunal favoured the overwhelming contributions of people over lobby groups. But it is not sustainable to do this for every single statue we want to remove.

Just looking at the list of heritage sites in the Free State, it’s clear how much influence lobby groups have. It will be an enormous effort to have some of this undone.

Where do we go from here?

We need to rethink how we understand and have a long think about reforming how we currently remove statues. We need more transparency for us to engage the facts of statue removal and most importantly, we need people. If people are quiet, lobby groups will win.

The lesson? Statues don’t fall if we don’t take them down. They are made of stone, bronze and metal. They will never move of their own accord. University councils and the policies they create are exactly like that. They are embedded into the raised platform of unjust histories, economies, cultures and geographies. The true statues sit on the councils of our institutions and if we do not agitate them, they will never fall.

Tshiamo Malatji, Why Statues Don’t Fall (2019)

2 thoughts on “South African statues don’t fall

  1. I absolutely enjoyed this read particularly the referral to the acts involved. Policy engagement is one of my passions which lacks in the activism space. People need to engage with policies in order for them to have the impact they possess. I love that you mention amending of policies that are no longer relevant to our lived realities. Many tend to shy from this part of the conversation. So much pity you could not say much about the internal process but thank you for this offering. It’s definitely thought provoking.

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