New brush: The A vandalised statue of Paul Kruger in Pretoria, on April 06, 2015. Picture: Gallo Images / Lungelo Mbulwana
New brush: The A vandalised statue of Paul Kruger in Pretoria, on April 06, 2015. Picture: Gallo Images / Lungelo Mbulwana

In his Heritage Day address on September 24, President Cyril Ramaphosa added his voice to those calling for the removal of apartheid-era and colonial statues.

"Monuments glorifying our divisive past should be repositioned and relocated. This has generated controversy, with some saying we are trying to erase our history," said Ramaphosa. "Building a truly nonracial society means being sensitive to the lived experiences of all [of] this country’s people. We make no apologies for this, because our objective is to build a united nation."

One of the responses to this was almost deranged in its anger. AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel, tweeting in English, wrote: "The #ANC’s efforts to get rid of Afrikaners through violence failed. Maybe that is why their next plan is to put Afrikaner statues into statue concentration camps or theme parks as they euphemistically call it."

Quite what "statue concentration camp" means is unclear. It appears that, to Kriel, apartheid statues are living things, included in his definition of Afrikaners, and that an attack on them is an attack on actual people.

The use of the term concentration camp is, one assumes, intended to invoke memories of the notorious British concentration camps that, University of Pretoria historian Fransjohan Pretorius tells us, were responsible for the deaths of "28,000 white people and 20,000 black people" during the SA War, rather than the later Nazi death camps.

The DA — perhaps predictably, given its recent flirtation with the alt-white cause célèbre of farm murders — also hopped on the statue pedestal, issuing the following statement: "Removing statues, symbols and monuments that do not form part of this narrative to ‘theme parks’ allows the ANC government to control how these statues are presented in the historical narrative to future generations. It silences the voices of the people for whom these statues, and the stories they tell, hold meaning, and denies them space in the new SA."

It appears the DA has ramped up its strategy of not seeing race, and now includes not seeing sense as part of its manifesto.

And yet, satirical jibes aside, the party does have a point. Controlling the symbols of history is a way of controlling the present.

One of the enduring visual memories of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was the toppling of a 12m statue of Saddam Hussein, which had been erected only a year before to commemorate his 65th birthday. Some sources claim it was a carefully choreographed photo opportunity by the Americans; others say it was a spontaneous gesture by Iraqis.

What it means:

What it means:
You cannot fix history by removing physical reminders of a dark past

According to news website SeattlePI.com, "British columnist Robert Fisk, writing from Baghdad on April 11 for The Independent, described the statue episode as ‘... the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.’"

In an early example of the sort of crude manipulation that would accompany coverage of US President Donald Trump’s fake news, television coverage of the event was manipulated so that close-ups of the scene made it appear as if there was a large crowd of Iraqis taking part.

Press photos, however, showed a much smaller crowd, and an eyewitness said that "it happened at only about 300m from where I was, and it was a very small crowd. The rest of the square was almost empty, and when we inquired as to where the crowd came from, it was from Saddam City [a poor neighbourhood some distance away]. In other words, it was a rent-a-crowd."

I remember watching the coverage on TV, and being appalled at the rude American triumphalism of the process. You might remember the footage yourself. An Iraqi man with a sledgehammer attempts, fairly unsuccessfully, to smash the statue’s plinth. He is later identified as an Iraqi weightlifter named Kadhim Sharif al-Jabouri, and he’ll feature again in this column.

Finally, a US M88 armoured recovery vehicle wraps a chain around Saddam’s neck and topples the statue of the imperiously waving dictator. It falls forwards, gets stuck for a second on the plinth, and is then yanked off the leg supports and to the ground where Iraqi citizens "decapitated the statue and dragged it through the streets of the city hitting it with their shoes".

But just before the statue is toppled, a US Marine climbs the ladder used to reach the neck and drapes a US flag, that patriotic graffiti that Americans appear to pathologically scrawl everywhere they go, like incontinent dogs marking their territory, over Saddam’s face.

According to Wikipedia, quoting the book Shooter, other Marines "realised the PR disaster unfolding as the formerly cheering crowd became silent, with one woman shouting at the Marines to remove the flag. Kuhlman [another marine, and one of the authors of Shooter] had appropriated an Iraqi flag as a war trophy during a raid earlier in the war, and quickly unfurled it and headed for the statue. The crowd grabbed this flag and then placed it over the statue."

Satirical jibes aside, the DA does have a point. Controlling the symbols of history is a way of controlling the present

Even this is contested, with al-Jabouri claiming he brought an Iraqi flag from his social club next door to replace it.

Two things about this story are perhaps instructive for the SA debate about the removal of apartheid and colonial-era statues.

The first is that it’s very easy to get the messaging wrong around why you’re doing it, so that what should symbolise freedom turns into self-serving oppression. This is why there’s always an outcry about spending money on moving statues while our people starve.

The second is that removing monuments to evil is not a universal panacea for the results of that evil.

Interviewed by US radio station NPR 15 years after the toppling of the Saddam statue, al-Jabouri (who spent 11 years in Saddam’s prison) said: "This was a brutal regime, but now, really, I regret hitting the statue. Those who came after are worse than Saddam Hussein and worse than Saddam Hussein’s regime. That’s why I regret it so much."

He also said: "[Things] started to get worse every year. There was infighting, corruption, killing, looting. Saddam has gone, but now in his place, we have 1,000 Saddams. I feel like Iraq has been stolen from us. They haven’t improved the infrastructure. They haven’t built anything. They haven’t done anything for the people."

It’s a story that will resonate with many South Africans.

Perhaps it would benefit those who, for both good and bad reasons, want to cling to the physical reminders of our dark past to read Deuteronomy 5:8-9: "Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."

Even the unbelievers among us can see the allegorical wisdom contained in this advice: if you seek to fix history, history will eventually punish you.

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