When Renaming Detracts From Context And Sincerity

The protracted process and reasoning involved by which a building at Stellenbosch University (SU) was renamed in the interests of transformation (The Mercury, July 7) fail the litmus test of historical context and transformation’s apparent spirit of sincerity.

Whilst there is merit in bringing to the fore those in the past who were neglected and ignored, their stature and experience cannot be properly immortalised without historical context. The renaming of the RW Wilcocks Building at SU after Krotoa is a case in point.

Krotoa, better known to the Dutch as Eva, was a Khoi servant girl, an interpreter and a nanny for Jan Van Riebeeck’s children. But following the end of Van Riebeeck’s tenure at the Cape in 1662, her secure life in the Fort abruptly changed. The years before her death in 1674 on Robben Island were filled with abuse, humiliation, alcoholism and imprisonment. Her involvement with the colonial Dutch alienated her from the Khoi people.

Her life and memory, as representative of the exploitation and suffering she and her people endured, certainly deserve visible and literary honour and acclaim.

Dr RW Wilcocks was Rector of Stellenbosch University for 20 years during which time it grew under his leadership. New departments were established – a Conservatory for Music, the Faculty for Engineering and Physical Development. Wilcocks’ interest in Psychology saw the subject developed as a Social Science. His initiative and guidance at SU earned him an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford University.

Despite his contribution to SU, by removing his name from a building on the SU campus, Dr Wilcocks has become the victim of what former editor Richard Steyn ascribes as the practice of “apportioning blame for historical injustices [rather] than making allowances for the times and circumstances in which [he] lived.”

Whatever staff and students at SU want to think about Dr Wilcocks, much of the institutional infrastructure of SU is his legacy and their heritage. A transformation that seeks to abolish heritage results in the embrace of a set of circumstances that lacks context and whose character is diminished because of the absence of context.

Krotoa deserves a full and unique physical memorial in acknowledgement of her life and times. Renaming a building after her is a second-hand tribute, a re-gifting. It detracts from the sincerity of the initiative to honour and remember her. At the same time, it reflects an uncalled for academic disregard for the contribution of Dr Wilcocks.

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