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Public historians, this is your moment!

In the past few weeks, statues of male historic figures in public places in South Africa have been splashed with poo and paint of all hues. It has become a veritable underground movement. Cecil Rhodes’ statue has been removed from the University of Cape Town, but around the country, George V, Louis Botha, General Fick, Mahatma Gandhi and Andrew Murray have all had rude paint baths. People have been arrested for crimes against art and history.

South Africa is blessed with a cadre of excellent historians who study the places where the rubber of history meets the road of public perception. They are public historians, who study the ways that history is made visible outside of libraries and classrooms: in statues, monuments, museums, public performances, art, etc. Wait — did I say statues? Oh my! Can it be that a group of academics in the much-defunded and reviled field of the humanities actually has something to contribute to society? Good heavens!

A statue is a hunk of shaped metal. Public historians study how that metal becomes splashed — literally of late, but usually only figuratively — with meaning, and how those meanings change over time. If there was ever a moment to demonstrate the importance of public history to South African society, it is right now. I hope the National Research Foundation is taking notice of the current turmoil over these statues. Increased funding for science and technology is well and good but Rhodes, George, Botha, Fick, Gandhi and Murray show that there are issues and problems that maths and engineering cannot solve. Forward with public history, forward!

My own research has to do with a liberal, apartheid-supporting (yes, supporting) philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town who embodied all the — here comes a bunch of words dear to the heart of academics — contradictions, complexities and nuances of South Africa’s apartheid past. His name was Andrew Murray (1905-1997). The person whose statue was splashed with paint in Wellington last week was his grandfather, Rev Andrew Murray Jnr (1828-1917). In the course of researching the UCT professor, I’ve read up on the Murray family. Into the twists and turns of South African history I have crawled!

From newspaper reports, white residents of Wellington seem perplexed as to why Rev Murray’s statue was splashed with red paint. He was “just” a religious man, a person who had no connection with colonialism, they sigh; ah, these vandals who have no appreciation for simple, godly virtue.

I can’t speak for the motivations of the statue-splashers, but they may have had a very different assessment of Rev Murray. A builder of institutions and movements, a supporter of the Boers in the South African War, he was a pivotal figure in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church — all marked in 1978 by a postage stamp to honour the 150th anniversary of his birth. In his 19th century heyday, he preached with so much inspiration, power and fervour that a movement of ecstatic revivalism was ignited on the veld. In district after district, ordinary white folks got the fever — in droves they suddenly began to speak in tongues and collapse in divine hysteria. He was the first headmaster of Grey College in Bloemfontein.

Nationally, Rev Murray was the elected head of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) at a moment when it had to decide what to do about its coloured congregants — in or out? He argued that the DRC should be formally segregated into the white “mother” church and the coloured and African “daughter” churches. The souls of coloured folks and Africans could be saved by DRC missionaries wielding the Good Book, as long as they remained under the thumb of the white man. Ask Rev Allan Boesak or the DRC’s many historians. They’ll tell you all about it. I’m sorry to break this to the historically challenged residents of Wellington but the DRC’s deep roots of segregation — inspired by Murray — became central elements in the character and conduct of colonialism and white supremacy in South Africa. That might be what some people see when they gaze at the statue of that godly man.

Does this mean that red paint should be aimed at Rev Murray’s statue? Who am I to say? I am quite sure, however, that this is a spectacularly appropriate moment for South Africa’s able cadre of public historians to lead open discussions and seminars across the country about the changing meanings and significance of South Africa’s historical monuments.


  • Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University of the Western Cape.


  1. Craig Lester Craig Lester 13 April 2015

    And on the basis of his leadership of the DRC synod, you condemn him? In perfect hindsight we can condemn him for actions as leader of the DRC, but he was part of a decision making process. I doubt that he would have been able to really change the decision to exclude people of colour from the DRC at the time.

    However, Murray does need to be respected for writings as an author and his leadership in a church that did not have the kind of spiritual leadership that Murray gave them. His spiritual writings are fabulous.

  2. Eddie Lennox Eddie Lennox 13 April 2015

    A well researched essay, Terri……sure to touch on some exposed nerves. That part of our history cannot be denied.

  3. divvie divvie 13 April 2015

    Ah, well, chuck the baby out with the bathwater ……

  4. lindsayclowes lindsayclowes 14 April 2015

    spot on Terri!

  5. Rory Short Rory Short 14 April 2015

    Tilting at windmills, just as at present, history is filled with characters who were flawed in various ways. Attacking them because of their flaws is nothing but a diversion from attacking the very real flaws in the current leadership which could potentially be a far more productive exercise.

  6. JohanSchoeman03 JohanSchoeman03 15 April 2015

    Did the DRC play a role in the promotion of segregation and apartheid! No doubt! Was this heresy on their part and therefore sinful in terms of the scripture, absolutely. Was Andrew Murray a leading role player in the establishment of the philosophy and institution of apartheid with the DRC? No i dont think so and if he did play any role i am absolutely convinced that his intentions was never to do any harm and the role that he might have played was to act as a counter balance the demands of more right wing and very bitter conservative elements in the Afrikaans society at that time.

    I think Andrew Murray, given the time frame he lived in was to act as a voice for reason and to act as a counter balance to an Afrikaner nation who had just been brutalized at the hands of the English who burnt their farms and who were responsible for the deaths by disease and starvation of over 30 000 woman children and old folk in their infamous concentration camps.

    The Afrikaner just wanted to be left alone and was filled with hatred for the English and thousands of black folk who were press ganged into helping them and by the same token all others hence the fact that they did not want anybody other than their own as part of their church which to them was one of the most sacred things that could not be taken away from them.

    Andrew Murray was no fool and knew this but he also did not want to lose the good Christian brothers and sisters of other races. I think he did the best that he could at that stage of our history and that was a compromise. Now we might argue that he should have taken a stance like Beyers Naude but that would have mant that he would have forsaken his calling as a child of God. At least by creating a “daughter church” his calling and life’s work and more importantly the soles of his fellow Christians would remain in tact.

    The history of the Afrikaner / Boer is not known by the majority of South Africans in this country. It was a hard and bitter struggle for them and frankly just as degrading and humiliating as Apartheid is and was to my fellow black compatriots in this country. The greatest shame is the fact that my God fearing Afrikaner kin went a did to others what was done to them. They should have known better.

    That brings me to an important point i would like to make. One has to be very careful in tarring everybody who played a role in the history of this country as being oppressive. I would submit that there are degrees in which some people actively promoted and institutionalized race based segregation and those like Andrew Murray who pragmatically, working as a voice of reason within an angry Afrikaner nation to act as a counter balance.

    If the statue painter and protesters want to target somebody in the DRC who actively aided and abetted Apartheid look for statues of Dr. Koot Voster ( Brother of John Voster and one time head of the DRC) and a few others. They will however not find any statues of them or Hendrik Verwoerd, John Voster, JBM Hertzog, DF Malan and other architects and promoters of Apartheid as they have already been moved to places like Orania and other conservative enclaves or places for safekeeping out of the public eye. Interesting to note that prime architects of Apartheid( Malan and Verwoerd) both studied in pre WW2 Nazi Germany and i am convinced that they were NAzi sympathizers and got their race based ideas from them and transplanted the ideas here in SA.

    So if you have paint to spare go and paint those in history who were oppressive wrong doers! It is here that i start running into difficulties. Were do you draw the line and what criteria do you use. What did Ghandi or Paul Kruger or Dick King do! Just because they represent a period of time that was part of our colonial past does not tie them to the oppression of black people in SA. Does that mean all pre 1994 statues have got to go and thereby wipe out our history.

    Here is the crux of the matter: Are the embittered black masses not going down the same path as the post Boer War Boers / Afrikaner. To serve what purpose? To achieve a sense of vengeful satisfaction, to score political points or to sweep up the masses for revaluation? I believe that in the long run the only thing they will be doing will be to do harm to themselves and this country.

    So Terri you say that you are not the person to say whether Andrew Murray’s statue should have been painted. If i read the subtext of the article you wrote i do think that you do believe so and now to be all pious and say that historians have to sort this out is dis disingenuous on your part. Dont you have the courage of your convictions to state your case and enter the debate on that basis?

    I would rather have a good long and contructive discussion with you than to relegate this to a historical committee who will then decide for us. Thank you for a though provoking artificial even if i dont agree with you on everything!

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