Not erecting a statue is significant

This was a striking statement in Brian Willan’s biography on Sol Plaatje of which I have written a fair bit recently (American influence, Shakespeare in Africa, Publishing 100 years ago).

It is in the 2000s that Plaatje was to be recognised for his contribution to South African politics and literature. In 2010 a statue of him working at his desk was erected in what used to be the Malay Camp but is now the Ernest Oppenheimer Park in Kimberley, Kimberley being in the Sol Plaatje Municipality. However, there is another of him which lies in the McGregor Museum waiting for a decision to be made. The dispute is over his stance – the family claiming that he would not have done the ‘ANC’ or ‘Amandla’ salute which is how he is portrayed.

The family maintains Sol was greater than the ANC – in terms of what he stood for. He was a journalist, author, linguist, fighter of equality (ethnicity and gender) and more. And this is where Willan’s comment about the significance of not erecting a stature comes in. Apart from the lack of consultation when the statue was commissioned, questions over ownership, appropriation and historical accuracy are all raised.

Statues are visual representations of individuals or events, no different to memorials, arches and buildings erected to commemorate events. They impart a message which needs no written words and as interpretations of the latter are informed by the reader’s context so statues are interpreted in the same way. What was acceptable to the community who erected the statue might not be acceptable to that same local community today which has changed its views, demographics etc. Statues are landmarks – both for helping one find one’s way around a location and as historical pointers. In contrast to the general trend of removing statues, the Spectator in June 2020 (kindly sent to me by a friend) suggests building more controversial statues. I’m all for keeping statues (not necessarily in their original location although that’s helpful) as a reminder of both the good and the bad. The two go together and we sometimes need to be reminded of our ancestors who made what we believe to be inappropriate decisions so we do not repeat them.

That old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is perhaps enough for doing the opposite. In the meantime, no doubt the debate over what to do with Plaatje’s statue will continue thereby providing future generations of students with an insight to the world of physical representations of the past.

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