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Heart of Darkness: The falling of statues and the conundrum of offensive books


Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

The answer to the issue of statues of evil people is that no amount of reimagination will be sufficient to atone for their evil deeds and, therefore, they belong in museums. But what do we do with books like Mein Kampf or Heart of Darkness?

Princeton University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, has dropped the name Woodrow Wilson from its policy school. Wilson was a celebrated professor and later president of Princeton, as well as the Governor of New Jersey and the 28th President of the United States. But Wilson was also known for enforcing racial discrimination in the public service.

The reason Princeton dropped the name of Wilson – 73 years after it honoured him – is because of the anti-racism movement that has gripped the world by storm after the brutal murder of George Floyd. This movement has grown so substantially that statues of cruel men who were enslavers and colonisers have already fallen.

The University of Oxford has, for example, agreed to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who pillaged southern Africa through violence and murder. The Charleston City Council voted to remove the statue of a former US Vice-President, John Calhoun. Calhoun was one of the confederate leaders who fought in the American Civil War to protect the system of enslaving African Americans. He owned as many as 80 slaves. 

The statue of another confederate, Johnny Reb in Virginia, was also removed. Other statues of confederate leaders who faced a similar fate include Jefferson Davis and Charles Linn. In the United Kingdom, the statue of Edward Colston, who made his fortune in the slave trade, was toppled and thrown into the sea in Bristol. 

These statues were taken down either because the authorities voted for their removal or Black Lives Matter activists forcibly removed them.  

Why has this moment arrived now? Police have been killing African Americans for a long time, with victims including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott… the list goes on. This moment has come now because of the confluence of Trumpism, Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as social media, as well as Covid-19 and the economic failures resulting from uncontrolled globalisation. 

There is a sense of urgency to resolve some of the issues that the American Civil War could not settle for approximately 150 years, particularly on how to handle the legacy of Confederate politics.

Recently, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, penned a critical piece in which he advocated the reimagination of the statues as an option, rather than their destruction. Unfortunately, statues are monuments of celebration and praise rather than monuments of shame. How do you reimagine the statue of the former US President Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved more than 600 African Americans? Do we go and insert a statement that says ‘here is a man who pillaged people to prolong poverty’? 

What do we do with books? Fundamentally, I am opposed to the banning or burning of books.

Given the fact that people are fundamentally flawed, how do we balance the good versus the bad in an individual, and use this as a basis of honour or condemnation? This makes the whole concept of letting a statue stand or fall a subjective matter. If only the pure can be honoured, there will be no one to honour because such a pure person does not exist. So a compromise is required when we honour people.

In the Christian doctrine, salvation is by repentance, meaning that even if you have spent your entire life killing people, if you repent in your last hour, then your sins are absolved. This criterion would not be acceptable to determine whether a person is honoured or condemned. 

Physicist Pascual Jordan contributed immensely to quantum mechanics. Jordan, however, missed the Nobel Prize in Physics, which was awarded to his collaborator Max Born, because he joined the Nazi paramilitary organisation known as the Sturmabteilung, or Brownshirts. The Nobel Prize Committee rightly found that his evil deeds far outweighed his excellent work in the field of physics. The same goes for other perpetrators of atrocities, such as Adolf Hitler, King Leopold II in the Congo and Cecil John Rhodes in southern Africa. The answer to the statues of evil people is that no amount of reimagination will be sufficient to atone for their evil deeds and, therefore, they belong in museums.

What do we do with books? Fundamentally, I am opposed to the banning or burning of books. Some books are offensive – an example of this is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. This book is a bible for genocide and was the foundation for the Holocaust. 

Another example is a book I recently read, Heart of Darkness, which was written by Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Polish-British author who wrote a story about a man, Marlow, who went to the Congo. In this book, Conrad describes Africans as objects and uses racist terms like “savages” and other derogatory words that reek of racism. The father of African literature, Chinua Achebe, described Heart of Darkness as a racist book, and it is generally believed that it was because of this criticism that Conrad was not awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Heart of Darkness is the story of a man called Marlow who sailed on the Congo River to look for an ivory trader, Kurtz. My interest in the story is the brutal treatment of Africans and how Conrad describes them. Africans were subjected to beatings, killings, forced labour and their resources were pillaged. The background of the story is the reign of King Leopold II, who personally owned the Congo. In his pursuit of the country’s riches, approximately 10 million Congolese – half the population – perished. The book brings to the fore the dispute between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino about the latter’s widespread use of the derogatory “N-word” racial slur in his movies.

According to Lee, only African Americans should have the right to use the “N-Word”, not a descendant of a slave master such as Tarantino. The question that can be asked now is whether Conrad’s use of racial slurs and other dehumanising words have a place in literature. What do we do with such books? We should write alternative stories challenging these books. We should identify and discredit aspects of these books that are flawed or evil. We should keep these books away from people who are in their formative years.

In conclusion, like Princeton University, we need to change the offensive names of institutions. Additionally, we need to remove offensive statues and place them in our museums. Finally, we need to challenge books that promote violence and discrimination intellectually and prevent these from tainting young minds at the formative stages of their lives. DM


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