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Apartheid is part of our national heritage

By Sonwabile Mancotywa

This being a heritage month, I’m reminded of an incident that happened fifteen years back on the same month. While premier of Free State, Terror Lekota removed the statue of Hendrik Verwoerd, which had been mounted in front of the building that housed the provincial administration. Lekota apparently found the mere sight of Verwoerd, to which he was subjected every time he showed up for work, quite offensive. Hardly anyone, especially within the black community, could blame him. Verwoerd was the brains behind apartheid. Black people celebrated the removal of the statue. Some reportedly danced on its head, in the same way the Iraqis did on a statue of Saddam Hussein following his toppling.

Afrikaners were enraged. A group of them stormed Lekota’s office, demanding that the statue be re-installed. They seemed to have been banking on Lekota’s reputation as a man of reconciliation. Earlier he had remonstrated with his then ANC comrades at a regional conference for not singing the Afrikaans version of the national anthem. That day, however, Lekota was in no reconciliatory mood. He told the fuming Afrikaners that Verwoerd was a despicable man, who didn’t deserve any public honours. Then he promptly chased them out of his office. That statue hasn’t been seen in public since then.

Lekota’s stance on the Afrikaner heritage was inconsistent. He insisted that his comrades learnt and sang the Afrikaans version of the national anthem, yet he removed the statue of the man whose vile achievements are extolled by those verses. Frankly, the inconsistency on this subject went beyond Lekota. Government did not have a policy on this. President Zuma is greeted by the statues of apartheid icon General Louis Botha every morning he turns up for work at the Union Buildings, just like Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki before him. The same figure stares down at the president, his executive and the entire ANC parliamentary representatives as they come into parliament. Most black people still do not understand why our public spaces are filled up by statues of apartheid icons. They wish the statues could suffer the same fate as the DF Malan statue in Pretoria, which simply collapsed right deep into an open ground — some kind of a forced burial. Poetic justice, blacks exclaimed.

The National Heritage Council is of the view that all statues that embody our apartheid past, ghastly as it was, should remain where they are. Their sight does indeed invoke unpleasant memories among black people. But, removing such statues from our public space smacks of an attempt to erase the apartheid chapter out of our history. This would be disingenuous. It would demand of us to pretend that apartheid never happened. Such pretence would never bring us any consolation. Memories of apartheid are irrepressible even in the absence of apartheid monuments. One does need a Verwoerdian statue to be reminded of apartheid. Everything around us is a reminder of our apartheid past, from the continuing residential segregation to income inequalities and the sheer poverty of black people. All these have their origin in the racial policies of apartheid.

Most importantly, failure to remember our apartheid history may predispose us to break the promise we made ourselves at the birth of our new democracy. Nelson Mandela uttered the words, as we watched him take the oath to lead us into the new dawn: “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Keeping that promise demands that we never forget. The memory of death, banishment, imprisonment, torture and sheer suffering is our shield against re-living that very past we detest so much. We must let that memory live alongside the new memories we’re creating every day as we build upon this beautiful experiment that is our non-racial democracy.

We would not be the first to have the new and the old memories embodied in the collective psyche of our new nation. Germany led the way in this respect. Monuments of their Nazi past, which tell of one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century ie the systematic slaughter of six million Jews, abound in that country. The Germans even reminded the whole world of this ghastly past during the recent Soccer World Cup. They displayed it prominently for all visitors to see as they came to watch the game of soccer. The US, after many years of denial, constructed a museum that reminds them of the enslavement of Africans which resulted in the death of millions of people and the continued suffering of people of African descent. Rwanda resolved to preserve and exhibit the skulls of the million or so Tutsis killed by the Hutu militia. All these serve as reminders to the people of these countries of what they should never repeat. They reinforce their commitment to continue building a just and human-rights oriented society. It ought not to be any different with us. We too are guilty of the same tragedies against our own and will do well to emulate the fine examples set by these countries.

We, as a country, have been slow in following suit. Heritage hasn’t received sufficient attention and financial resources. Historical buildings are commercialised. Port Elizabeth’s Sanlam Building, for instance, has fallen in the hands of estate agents looking to make profit. This could be a monument that reminds us of the torture of political activists, a gross violation of human rights. It was the centre of torture and detention for the entire Eastern Cape. The gruesome beating that led to the death of Steve Biko began in that building. Political activists, such as George Botha, were thrown to their death through the windows of that building. Those who survived death, like Moki Cekisani, still bear the scars they sustained from the torture that happened in that building. The police beat up Cekisani until he lost his hearing. These are things we should never allow ourselves to forget.

Understandably, such memories evoke trauma, especially because they are still so fresh in our minds. But, we are a country that is not deterred by discomfort. Our democracy was constructed on unpleasant compromises. We made them because it was necessary for the new society to be born. Its sustenance depends on not forgetting what was. Ours should be a constant battle against forgetfulness.

Sonwabile Mancotywa is the chief executive of the National Heritage Council of South Africa

  • Tlanch Tau

    Nice one brother. Good luck with the comments that are to come.

  • Morné

    It’s an interesting point that you make. I am not sure though, about the parallel you draw between the statues of Apartheid icons and monuments that remind us of Apartheid with the intention of keeping it in our minds so that we may never let it happen again.

    I agree with Terror Lekota’s sentiments: The Afrikaans language, although spoken by the oppressor, is not in itself to blame for apartheid and is an important cultural aspect of a section of South African society. As such Terror feels that it deserves as much respect from all South Africans as all our other ten languages.

    Apartheid icons on the other hand are another story. Having a statue made of you is an honour and I don’t believe that Apartheid icons deserve that honour.

    Having monuments that remind us of our past is important. Honouring villains is not.

    One question that your post has made me think about and that I intend to find out about is: Are there any statues of Hitler or Himmler in important everyday areas (like public squares or by government buildings) in Germany?

  • GW

    Tragic how quickly South Africans, with all their museums and statues, have allowed it to happen all over again in Zimbabwe right next door. So much for the reminder. Lets think about that before we all get drunk tomorrow and pat ourselves on our back…

  • Henri

    As an Afrikaner I can understand what a statue or symbol could mean of someone like Verwoerd in a country we want to built on the future. That said I also support the re-naming of street with apartheid leader names or certain symbols.

    However, I get offended when everything dear to the Afrikaner is associated with apartheid and names are changed left and right. Jan Smuts, Louis Botha, Chris Barnard or WW2 soldiers. I think the ANC has lost the plot and just dividing SA-cans even more because they cannot see the distinction between offending symbols, and just having a go in breaking down the Afrikaner history and identity.

    I predict more difficult times to come if black leaders in society do not start saying something. About issues like these and also about the ‘non existant’ black on white hate crimes getting more frequent. Come and join the group on facebook if you have something positive to contribute.We do not have to agree but please, oh please, just talk sense like an intelligent person. We have too many dumb opinioted people that cannot verify information….

  • Alisdair Budd

    Quite right.

    In the same way Lucretia Borgia is part of the national heritage of Italy and Hitler that of Germany. Or President Pinochet is of Chile.

    You shouldn’t try to deny them just because they were unpleasant. In fact you can earn a great living re-interpreting them regularly for historical romance novels and curriculum textbooks.

  • Michael Francis

    A great post. As you say “We must let that memory live alongside the new memories we’re creating every day as we build upon this beautiful experiment that is our non-racial democracy”.

    The past must never be forgotten and heritage does not receive its due support unless it is seen to correspond to tourism. The educational aspects of heritage need recognizing and support. Instead of dismantling old statues there should be new ones built. The constitutional court is a great example to follow. Good luck in your work.

  • Jon

    Learn your history properly. Louis Botha died in 1919. Apartheid was instituted by D.F. Malan only in 1948. It appears you tar all whites of any past vintage as “apartheid figures”. The modern equivalent would be calling every Arab a terrorist.

  • Mark Kerruish

    15 years back. Hmmm. I seem to remember a very rude young man who felt it was acceptable to tell “you whites” to vacate the table at a restaurant beacause “we are in charge now”. When asked about the preamble to the Freedom Charter he was mute but apoplectic.

    Given the prominence given to race both during and post-apartheid, I believe that monuments to racists are perfectly acceptable in this society. We seem to laud them regardless of their race.

  • Mncedisi

    Yes, heritage consists of everything past, bad or good, but your point is marred by isolating individual actions and statues from apartheid as a system that was founded on social and cultural constructs like race and ethnicity. Whether unintentional, its comparison of two important, but opposing poiticians is more politically partisan and thus fails to confront a plethora of policies and laws subjacent to apartheid -a system.

    Although promulgated by individuals, race, and ethnic-centred policies, past and present, underlied the apartheid system, more than statues. These race-based policies and laws have adopted new forms like the Employment Equity Act, and everything colour-coded, be it in name or form.

    While apartheid separated society along racial lines to preserve power and maintain dominance, it also built cities and economic infrastructure which led to its demise. Preservation of the darker side of our race-based past should not be done for its own sake, but serve as a reminder of such a past, in order to avoid its repeat or repackaging and not to sublimate one perpetuator to another.

    We should confront our unpalatable past by admitting that we are all racists, Black and White, by virtue of having been born in a race-centred society. When we understand that race considerations facilitate our everyday decision making – residential choice, employment, relationships,etc,. we will then learn to mediate its excesses.

  • jon story

    Never, never again…Famous last words. It could happen that far in the future staues of black icons now being erected to honour them are torn down. History is full of regimes who did not tolerate any statues or monuments of former regimes and their heroes. Tut-Ank-Amon ‘s tomb was discovered so late in time and intact because subsequent pharaos obliterated his name from monuments and thus officially he did not exist. Is it not strange that the more we want to forget apartheid, the more it comes back to haunt us. Race has become the buzz-word of the day (at least in SA) and as long as there are human beings with different colours here it will be ‘in’ to refer to race. Maybe we do not want to forget. Like the person who says: I will forgive you but I will never forget. Unless we come to realise that forgiving and forgetting go together ‘race’ will be the shackle around our neck. In the bible it says somewhere: I will remember your sins no more. That was God speaking. With Him no longet in the picture of many, it is no wonder we keep on harping on race and calling the other racist. On whatever pretext and opportunity we can think of. ‘Free at last’, yes, but not really. Maybe Heritage Day should rather be called Forgiveness Day.

  • Spot on

    Excellent, excellent post Sonwabile. It should serve as a reminder of our deeply troubled past and hopefully also remind us that never again should those sins be repeated. Be it by the current government or those set to follow. Brilliantly written, this made my day.

  • Piet Opperman

    This is a good and thoughtful article. I do not agree with everything, but I do sympathise with the underlying argument that our heritage is our heritage , and should be preserved as a warning if not as a celebration.

    Some inaccuracies in this article; “Die Stem” does not in any way “extol the virtues” of Verwoerd, and the statues that collapsed into the parking lot below was of J G Strijdom, not DF Malan.

    Another issue that irritates me is how every Afrikaner historical figure is automatically associated with apartheid and racism. The fact is that the entire world, up to the mid-1950’s was racist. American schools and many public facilities were segregated. General Louis Botha was no more (or less) a racist than Cecil John Rhodes or the poet TS Elliot. He was (and rightly) honoured for leading the unification of South Africa, not for his repression of people of colour.

  • Joe Moer

    Few but a few ardent Zulu royalists would argue that Chaka was anything but a vile despicable murdering tyrant, but surprise surprise he is revered, is it because he is black ? or is it because it was along time ago ?

  • Sabelo

    Nonsense people who believe they conquered your people do not deserve an honor. This libral nonsense does not hold for me. You ought to realise that we done made far too many compromises from not naming our country, raping the anthem and all the everyday racism we take, YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME Bro!

  • John Collings

    By your singularly daft argument, Germany should have erected a giant statue in Munich of Hitler after his death to remind its citizens of the horrors of Nazism. Far better to prohibit the erection in public places of statues of politicians, and the naming of roads, airports and god knows what else after them. Most of such memorials will in time become embarrassments – or meaningless because nothing is more rapidly consigned to oblivion than yesterday’s politician.

  • anton kleinschmidt

    Your historical perspective is spot on given the harm suffred by blacks at the hands of these apartheid icons and their supporters.

    It would be a tragedy if the same harm becomes the norm for South African minorities at the hands of the icons of the new black nationalism. This is why anti white rhetoric is so profoundly dangerous

  • rufus

    Please erect a statue to Selebi(and others of his ilk if funds permit)so that we can enjoy their legacy – a confused, chaotic, incompetent criminal justice system that has directly and indirectly contributed to/enabled/encouraged more(violent)deaths,assaults,rapes and robberies of more people than ever occurred under the apartheid system.
    And LEST WE FORGET again, what about a statue to commemorate the lame and limp-wristed judicial system that has become the envy and darling of every criminal,crony or beneficiary of cronyism in the land. Perhaps Justice Hlope could be approached as a possible patron/sponsor? To my alma mater?

  • Vrystaat

    Sonwabile Mancotywa, this may surprise you, but many won’t have much trouble with what you are saying, as opposed to how you are saying (some of) it.

    Like some commentators above, and as a Free State Afrikaner, I feel a bit offended that you would generalise about Free State Afrikaners. It’s a bit like saying all Natal-Zulus are war-like, i.e. racism.

    I was not enraged when Verwoerd`s statue was removed, none of my family or friends was enraged, I don’t even know any FS Afrikaners who were enraged. I was pre-school when (Amsterdam-born) Verwoerd met his unfortunate fate, and I don’t give a cr*p about him or his legacy; plus I can understand how he upset many. But I don’t prescribe to the view that all white leaders are bad (or all black leaders are good). (Btw, I see that Russia plans to re-erect some Stalin statues).

    Terror Lekota on the other hand, had lived in my little home town for a long time, and a number of FS Afrikaner people I know were some (of the minority of voters) who voted for him and COPE.

    You don’t mention how you feel about English leaders (say (the evil – imo) Cecil John Rhodes or Queen Victoria. So I am happy with monuments to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela (Lekota, Buthelezi), but am partial to monuments to Afrikaner Boer War heroes, who had very little to do with apartheid.

  • Vrystaat

    Coincidentally, I just noticed this article on the Internet, right after pressing “submit”:” Rising amid squalor, Senegal monument stirs anger” at

    Extract: “Octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade has compared the work to France’s Eiffel Tower and America’s Statue of Liberty; it is 13 feet taller than the latter.
    And he has sparked outrage by maintaining he is entitled to 35 percent of any tourist revenues it generates because he owns “intellectual rights” for conceiving the idea, with the rest to go to the government.”

    The locals seem outraged. Well, at least it is not only South Africans who bicker about monuments, and it could have been worse.

  • Monica Seeber

    You are right. We must never forget the apartheid past. We must make the remembrance of past injustices part of our national psyche and teach it in our schools so that our children absorb and understand the destructive power of race hatred. Let’s not delude ourselves that we are a happy rainbow nation with no historical baggage but, rather, confront that baggage, in our daily lives, until we begin to understand each other. And then let’s celebrate both our differences and our samenesses. If we’re going to erect statues they should be in honour of those who have made significant contributions to South Africa’s cultural heritage. Where’s the statue of Es’Kia Mphahlele, for instance? Of Sol Plaatje? Of Nesta Nala? We need a commission, representative of all our ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic communities, to decide which statues should remain and which must go. And, yes, please get rid of all the Hendrik Verwoerd streets, roads, drives, avenues and boulevards.

  • http://hardtalk Siphiwo Siphiwo

    where have you been all these years?

    bravo for a shrewed analysis…

  • john carlisle

    Mark makes a seemingly sound intellectual point – with a fatal flaw. If the blacks were really racist they would have wiped the whites off the face of the earth; especially after a white man murdered the great Chris Hani. The fact that a black man, who loved Chris as a comrade in arms, begged for no retaliation while standing over the body of his friend (Tokyo), just does not seem to penetrate the psyche of so many whites.
    The whites were racist oppressors: period. The blacks were oppressed. It does not matter what colour the oppressor is, you do not like them, and justifiably can’t stand to look at whatever glofifies them. Its about reaction to oppression that is mixed up here with racism; which gives the whites a nice excuse (racism)to justify their defensiveness.
    By the way Mark, how many times have you, your family and friends been to the Apartheid museum, of to Sharpeville, or watched the TRC on tv?
    Great article Mr Mancotywa. More please.

  • Benzol

    Schools could play a major role in this through history and geography, teaching “things” that happened. Unless…….we are rewriting history.

    Apartheid was a bad system but not all that developed under apartheid was bad.

  • brent

    Good article, the difficulty is how not to ‘erase’ the past so that we learn from it and the opposite; harping on it and using it for todays political goals. Your thoughts/ideas go a long way along the correct parth to reconciliation without memory loss.

    Would like to know what other countries; Russia/E.Europe/Chile etc are doing to reconcile their ugly past without dwelling on or erasing the past, coud you assist?


  • mallencolly

    As chief executive of the National Heritage Council I would expect you to have a slightly better knowledge of history.

  • Jobe

    I think you are missing the point here, You want to tell me the Jews can live with a statue of Adolf Hitler in Jerusalem or the American with a statue of Bin Laden in Washington? I don’t think so! lets keep does statues in the museum not in the Union Buildings and our Public places because that amount to honouring these thugs!

  • Francois

    I have to agree with Henri. I am more than willing to condem Verwoerd or Malan for what they did. But not every single Afrikaner that ever did anything notable is an apartheid icon. That goes for General Louis Botha. Louis Botha died in 1919, a little less than 30 years before Apartheid even began. Yes, it’s true Louis Botha was no non-racial champion, but then at that time who was? By that standard of reasoning we should reject just about every figure in history who had expressed prejudices typical to his age. Thomas Jefferson should be rejected because he had slaves. Shakespeare would have to be thrown out because his plays contained racism. That doesn’t make racism or slavery right, but we need to judge these great men on their individual merits. And we do. And I think figures like Louis Botha and Jan Smuts deserve the chance to be judged in the same way for their considerable positive achievements rather than simply be written off as “apartheid icons”.

  • brigs

    Nice, point. I think one of the things Germaney has gotten right, it acknowledging is lousy past. This thing happend. It was horendouse, we are to blame. But let move forward, and remember a day when German people went mad. and make sure it never happens again. Something i feel we fail with in south africa, appartheid was terrible. but it is part of our past. Let us acnowledge that much at least.

  • Mat Girl

    I think that this is a very valid argument and thank you for solving the mystery of what happened to the monument in Pretoria which I wondered about. I quite liked the monument concept and appearance especially compared to the Voortrekker block outside Pretoria from an aesthetic point of view. Perhaps it would be more practical though not to have any statues erected to people unless they actually are living monuments which people benefit from such as the Grahamstown Monument. Sanlam house for example should be preserved and maybe provide housing to the descendents of those who fought and died in the struggle or would that perhaps be too painful for them? I know I felt sick to my stomach one day in a shopping Mall where a wellknown bookshop was having a SA Heritage week and what should they have in their window display but one of those benches with the stencil “Nie Blankes” on it. I thought that it was in extremely poor taste and I am white and lived through that era. It sickened me then and it still does today. I think buildings which played a role should perhaps have plaques on reminding people of what took place there but be used for something positive such as teaching adults crafts or facilitating the transition. Those of us who lived on the right side of apartheid need no reminders of the awful crimes against humanity but future generations might well do. It’s a debatable point.

  • Paul Young

    You are so right about preserving apartheid statues or monuments for future generations to understand what apartheid was. More importantly the heritage trust should add a plaque to these structures detailing their reasons for existance, thus ensuring those that perpetuated apartheid are distinguished from those that did’nt.

  • Joshuoa

    Good point but I bet you will not find Adolf Hitlers statue in any German National Building. However the torture chambers still exist. There’s a difference between the two and I need not repeat Morné’s sentiments as they are loud and clear…

  • Jon

    Monuments aren’t ever built to commemorate or remember anything.

    They are built to mythologise. To “remember” something that, in reality, was never quite as large or as grand or as evil or as earth-shatteringly important as what it is now made out to be.

    They’re all far more sizzle than actual steak.

  • Antony

    A PARADOX : The whole world rightly condemned ‘apartheid’ but now the universal cry is for ‘seperate development’ i.e. Israel And whoever thought Yugoslavia was five different nations or that the UK was a United Kingdom ?

    A second dichotomy: The evil of apartheid was legislating and forcing people to separate – whereas the current imperative is to do the same to force people to integrate – the common denominator being that of forcing people – which is neither ‘democratic’ – nor a correction of ‘racism’

  • Nahor Ecnarraf

    Well written and well thought out Sonwabile.

    Personally I feel that all statues and street names etc should stay exactly as they are. Our history is alive and being created with each day that passes. In 100 years the Verwoerd statue would simply remind passers by of the apartheid period in our countries past. We certainly shouldn’t erect any new statues honouring apartheid icons, but the current ones should stay.

    A better solution to Terror’s issue with seeing Verweord every day, would have been to erect a new statue of our beloved Madiba opposite to Verweord. Terror could then have walked past the man who lead us to freedom, facing directly into the stare of the man who created apartheid. I feel this would have preserved our shameful history, honoured our greatest president ever, and allowed future generations to see the whole picture in entirety.

  • Kick the mime

    Nationalism is the root of a bad or distorted memory because it lends the nationalist the undeserved qualities of righteousness.
    Irrespective of the political form we have, the nationalist will repeat the mistakes of the past all for the sake of power – what the British did to the Afrikaner, with the camps and the exterminations, the Afrikaner did to the blacks with homelands and townships (without a deliberate policy of extermination). Now blacks, with an urge for revanche, need to act against all whites and minority groups with exterminative violence. This will complete the historical cycle. We do not transcend our past unless we see significant possibility, we replicate the past in our cultural cognitions and forever live as victims. Memory is something we can do without in a time in which cultural cognitions tell us that feeling aggrieved is far more important than engaging with reflection and interrogating our pasts. In the end, violence is the end result but the fist is first raised against brother and sister, then against other races and colours, and then against ourselves. Our refusal to see the truth leads us to self-destructive folly because we see blanket generalisations as holding more value than specific personal experiences. The strength of bigotry and violence all reside in vagueness of sentiment, a pissed off bus driver who takes no lip from anyone, without direct personal experiences to create a reliable guide to steer engagements with reality.
    Instead, urges to vanquish real/imagined ‘enemies’ proves self-worth.

  • john carlisle


    Is it not about time that being a nationalist of any kind was recognised as a dangerous identity? It was not for nothing that the Nazis and the Nats had the word in their title – and look what it led to. The same is happening as the “nationalists” pervert religions et al to suit the nationalism that bolsters their weak egos.
    The real enemy today could be the nation state?

  • Awa

    I don’t know where the Advocate writer of your article got his facts from, but there’s a few incorrect statements of facts. I don’t agree on your stance about apartheid because the situation in this so-called democracy is far worse than what was claimed during Apartheid. Just look at the crime statistics and how many people where murdered under this ANC regime the past 15 years compared to the 40 years preceding 1994.

    Firstly, the Statue referred to as DF Malan was actually JG Strijdom’s head which fell onto a parking lot on JG Strydom’s square near the State theatre. There’s no
    DF Malan statue in Pretoria even before 1994.

    Mandela’s well known words is actually contradicting himself. To say one can not dominate the other is unrealistic-especially in an African context-Black on black tribe and black on white tribe. There will always be an elite or elite run by a dictator like Mugabe ruling over the middle and poor class and the Communists can’t deny this-especially in a so-called Democracy.

    The only point I can agree on is that you can not deny or erase history.

  • Chillipeppa

    Lekota should not have taken down Verwoed’s statue. He should rather have put one of Mandela next to it and let history decide which of the two made the bigger mark on the history of our country.