Statues and History

Statues and monuments provide not the only reference to times past, but more importantly, they provide context to history and to the march of change.

The measure of change depends on precedents. If those are erased or removed, then by what means can one point to progress and change? A school report card or an accountant’s review of income, profit and loss is without relevance unless it makes reference to previous results and performance.

In considering whether a statue or monument is worthy of preservation, some basic criteria should apply. If racial discrimination is the only criterion, then every statue and monument would have to be removed – from the pyramids to Queen Victoria and most things in between.

For those who seek to celebrate non-racialism in South Africa, statues of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha are a reminder of the road that has been travelled to achieve that goal. Without those reminders, there is no reference to appreciate from what one has been liberated.

Since we live in a fallen world, all periods in history are stained by wrong-doing and tragedy. Statues can serve as reminders of the need not to repeat such experiences. At the same time, however, statues are reminders of achievement. To justify removing statues of Washington and Jefferson purely on the grounds that they were slave-owners while ignoring their roles as founders of the USA is unreasonable and unacceptable.

A vital aspect of the conversation to review historical monuments (The Mercury, editorial, June 17) is the need to inquire where this is leading. If statues and monuments are removed, books, films and libraries will be next. Those at the forefront of this movement are simply using race as an issue with which to promote a guilt complex about history and heritage. Their real goal was expressed by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four where, having vanquished the past, “nothing exists except an endless present” over which only the rule and opinion of the Party prevails. History is life’s greatest teacher.

Sent into The Mercury and published 18th June 2020

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