South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Whether colonist or Struggle hero, in the realm of SA statues it’s still a man’s world

Op-Ed: Whether colonist or Struggle hero, in the realm of SA statues it’s still a man’s world

The ongoing controversy over the University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes has sparked a needed debate over the memorialising of South Africa’s historical figures. If the Rhodes statue were to be taken down, who would replace him? Mandela? Biko? Tambo? If the status quo is anything to go by, it would be another statue of a man. REBECCA DAVIS examines the shortage of statues of female Struggle figures in particular in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Would you like to see a list of public statues and monuments in South Africa? When the Daily Maverick contacted the National Inventory Unit of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) to ask for this information, we discovered it wasn’t that easy.

“All public monuments are protected in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act, but do not require formal declaration,” National Inventory Unit manager Katie Smuts emailed back. “Those memorials that have been graded or declared are listed with us.”

These amount to a grand total of 24. They include the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, constructed over 12 years and inaugurated in 1949. There’s the remains of the Cross erected by Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias in 1488 when he rounded the Cape. There’s the grave of former ANC President Dr AB Xuma. There’s the grave of WH Robbertse, but we’re still not sure who that is, and SAHRA’s listing doesn’t help.

A number of Voortrekker graves are listed, and the Orlando Community Hall in Soweto, where the Pan-Africanist Congress was formed in 1959. The list may be slightly out of date, because it states that the Irish Volunteer Monument – erected in remembrance of Irish volunteers who fought alongside Afrikaners against the British – is in Gauteng, although it was controversially moved to Orania in the Northern Cape in 2002.

But that list is as good as it gets. There appears to be no centralised database of South Africa’s public statues and monuments. Requests to the Arts & Culture Departments of the City of Cape Town and City of Johannesburg for lists of the statues and monuments in those cities went unanswered.

What seems to be beyond doubt, though, is that – in particular – women who were active in the Struggle are under-represented in South African memorialising.

There are statues of Colonial-era women. Imposing statues of Queen Victoria remain in no less than six South African cities: Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Durban, Kimberley, Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg. Jan van Riebeeck’s wife, Maria de la Queillerie, has her own statue in Cape Town, donated by the Netherlands in 1952. A female 1820 Settler is sculpted with her husband outside the 1820 Settler Monument in Grahamstown.

Afrikaner women are also commemorated for resilience, resistance or victimhood. The Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein commemorates 27,000 Boer women and children who died in British concentration camps. In the Drakensberg, the unusual ‘Kaalvoet Vrou’ (barefoot woman) is a statue in memory of Susanna Smit, who swore that she would rather trek barefoot over the mountains than live in Natal under British rule.

In the whites-only enclave of Orania, the koeksister monument is not just a tribute to the sweet fried delicacy, but also to the self-sufficiency of Afrikaner women who have raised funds through generations through the sale of koeksisters at bazaars and fêtes.

There are also symbolic statues, where a female figure represents some abstract concept. UCT has a bronze sculpture of a female figure who symbolises the virtues of education on its Middle Campus: the ‘Alma Mater’, or ‘nurturing mother’. The Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek features a female figure representing religious freedom.

Not all were successful: there is a female statue on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets in Cape Town which is sometimes assumed to be Britannia, but which was commissioned to represent the benevolence of the Board of Executors in 1894. Its execution was considered so absurd that the townsfolk dubbed it ‘Widow Twankey’, the archetypal pantomime dame.

While these colonial and symbolic examples pale in numbers beside the quantity of statues commemorating male figures from the equivalent time period, they exist nonetheless. Where the real gap seems to arise is in the memorialising of more modern South African women.

There is a Monument to the Women of South Africa at the Union Buildings in South Africa which is, to quote academic Kim Miller, “the only commemorative site dedicated entirely to women’s Apartheid-era political efforts”.

Miller, an associate professor at Wheaton College in the US, has researched this topic extensively and is about to release a book called How did they dare? Women’s activism and the work of memory in South African commemorative art. The first part of the title, Miller, explains, is a quote from Walter Sisulu when he was marveling over the courage and organisational capabilities of the women who organised the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings.

The Monument to the Women attracts ambivalence. While the traditional memorials for male historical figures are impressive structures of granite, bronze and marble – think virtually any statue of Nelson Mandela – the central piece of the Monument to the Women consists of an imbokodo: a grinding stone. This drew criticism that the concept was not sufficiently “heroic”, and to a certain degree reinforced the notion that a women’s primary labour is domestic.

Miller records in a 2011 paper that the Department of Arts & Culture purchased a second sculpture for the Union Buildings to memorialise the 1956 Women’s March in 2002. By Noria Masaba, it is reportedly more imposing: depicting a gathering of women dynamic in protest, hewn out of wood. The four female leaders of the Women’s March are named in a plaque on the back, though not specifically represented in the sculpture itself.

Because it was “too big”, however, the sculpture was removed shortly afterwards. Wheaton took “months” to track it down to its new home in the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria. The remaining Monument to the Women at the Union Buildings is reportedly hard to access due to tight security, meaning that to all intents and purposes it stays invisible.

There are no shortage of heroic female activists to be honoured. Charlotte Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Victoria Mxenge: Miller notes that these women were portrayed prominently in visual culture during the Struggle, but that this “rich visual rhetoric that once helped create political identities and recognition for women has now largely disappeared”.

An acclaimed Sunday Times Heritage project to place memorials to South African newsmakers around the country produced few statues of women compared to those of men. One is a Brenda Fassie statue in the Newtown Cultural Precinct in Johannesburg, which the City of Johannesburg’s Deputy Director for Immovable Heritage Eric Itzkin described to the Daily Maverick as a “very popular bronze”. Another is a memorial to Lilian Ngoyi at the activist’s former home in Soweto.

These examples notwithstanding, it is rare to find a representational (non-abstract) statue of an individual female figure from post-colonial South African history in the way that one would of, say, Mandela or Biko. Where such women are commemorated, it tends to be done either collectively – as in the “Monument to the Women of South Africa”, even though a “Monument to the Men of South Africa” would seem absurd – or abstractly.

A Cissie Gool memorial in the centre of Cape Town, for instance, consists of 17 bollards representing 17 laws that Gool was able to pass as the first black woman elected on to local government. A memorial to the Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker, erected in 2006 in Gordon’s Bay, takes the form of a plinth with a tricycle sculpture on top. Neither of these memorials are easily or immediately understood as referring to the women they represent, unless one takes the time to examine and interpret more closely.

One extremely unusual example of a South African woman commemorated in the heroic, grandiose way normally reserved for men is the towering bronze statue of trade unionist Frances Baard in the centre of Kimberley. Other women who appear in this form seem to do so with male companions: an Athlone statue of MK activist Coline Williams stands next to her comrade Robert Waterwitch, with whom she died. Albertina Sisulu is now immortalised in bronze outside Parliament – but holding hands with her husband Walter.

If Rhodes is to fall at UCT, or if another figure is to join him in a perpetual conversation, it would be a refreshing and much-needed choice to make that figure a South African woman. One obvious choice would be Cissie Gool, once dubbed ‘South Africa’s Joan of Arc’ by the press, who became the first black woman to receive a degree at UCT when she graduated with a BA in 1932.

Cecil John Rhodes, the narrative goes, was “indifferent” to women – at best. What better way to signal the passing of his era? DM

Photo: A possible artwork commemorating FEDSAW Women’s Protests, Pretoria 1956.


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