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.

“Never give up”

Never give up conclude Rwanda means the Universe: a native’s memoir of blood and bloodlines, a book by Louise Mushikiwabo combining the history of Rwanda through the exploration of family links.

I came upon the book whilst researching for the commissioned article on Ruanda-Urundi during World War 1. Knowing I would be visiting Rwanda, I decided to leave reading the whole book until I was there. I’m not sure if it’s better to read a book about a place when you are there or before you arrive, but on this occasion I’m pleased I took it with me. As I met with friends and travelled around Kigali and down to Butare/Huye (where the first school and university in Rwanda was built), so the names and places mentioned in the book became real. But what I hadn’t realised until I dared to show my Rwandan friend the book, that the author, Louise, is today Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Her story reflects that of many who experienced the genocide – the differences will are in the detail of events and the horrors – and survived. They haven’t given up! Despite all that fellow country men and women did to each other, it is evident that there is a significant section of the population which hasn’t given up on trying to make their country a better place for all. I’m not naive enough to think that it has been and will be smooth sailing, but there is definitely something about Rwanda which I haven’t experienced in any other African country – part of me found it too ordered, clean and new (most of Kigali is only ten years old), whilst another part of me found the interaction with and between people who had been educated in different parts of the world refreshingly open, honest and tolerant of ‘otherness’. I felt a true equal.

The resilience of Africans was brought home when we met with a young Burundi woman wo was taking refuge with her grandmother in Kigali. Talking to her, you would have no idea of all the horrors that country is currently experiencing. Concerns and worry are kept private and life as it happens is taken for what it is and enjoyed when it can be.

I imagine that after World War 1, many Africans who had experienced the horrors of that conflict reacted in much the same way and got on with life – reconciling with those who had been ‘on the other side’  in so many ways (if only a few other African countries would take a leaf out of these reconciling books!). The difference however, is that while WW1 has disappeared from local memory, I don’t think the genocide will. My reason? There are too many memorials to those affected by the genocide whilst only a few photos, part of a building (the Kigali prison) and a few descendants remain to remind those who search of the presence and impact of WW1. Records (memorials and monuments)  of the past play an important role in reminding us of where we have come from; the good and bad. They reflect who we are today and can serve to remind us of attitudes and times we don’t want to return to.


 #WW1 #Africa #Rwanda #Burundi #memory