Defend Truth


Our South African heritage: From a diverse past to a united future


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

The debate about the removal of statues offers the ideal opportunity to take a fresh look at our diverse past and to cultivate respect for one another’s heritage while we build a new South African culture together in the true spirit of reconciliation.

The government’s decision to go ahead with removing statues and monuments of the apartheid and colonial eras (even though participants at public hearings indicated overwhelmingly that the statues could remain) deserves to be reviewed. The ministerial task team which investigated the transformation of the heritage landscape is of the opinion that certain statues and monuments are “too offensive” to be exhibited any longer.

No one argues anymore in favour of apartheid and colonialism. The question is how such a process takes place without antagonising those that feel that the statue represents part of their heritage. 

According to one commentator, the shifting of statues to theme parks in those communities creates the feeling that they and their heritage are once again being locked up in concentration camps. But according to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture it is not an attempt to wipe out a part of South Africa’s history. Nor is it being done in anger. According to the department, it is purely to prevent the situation where certain statues are damaged, as has occurred with the statues of Paul Kruger and Jan van Riebeeck. 

But is this the best solution?

Inclusive process

To me, it is clear that the process which should precede such a step must be completely inclusive of all role players and communities and their leaders and representatives. In all fairness, the government has not done too badly. But a more focused approach is required so that each community can take ownership of the process to avoid recriminations afterwards. It requires respect for the past and empathy for current viewpoints.

In this regard, the management of the University of the Free State has set a worthy example with the removal of the statue of MT Steyn, erstwhile president of the Free State before and during the Anglo Boer War. Thanks to an inclusive process and thorough consultation with all parties, an agreement was reached and the statue was moved to the War Museum of the Boer Republics. AfriForum was not very excited about the removal, but accepted it as the best decision for all parties. Similarly, without being prescriptive, consideration could be given to moving the statue of Paul Kruger to the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and that of Jan van Riebeeck to the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.

Indigenous heritage

While we are talking about communities who are aggrieved about the removal of statues that are important to them, it is also necessary – even high time – that we talk about the indigenous communities of our country whose heritage has been ignored and marginalised over the years. 

In primary school, I learnt that Jan van Riebeeck set foot here on 6 April 1652. For a very long time, it has been regarded as the beginning of our history. But no textbook ever uttered a word about Krotoa. I have in this space made a plea that the Cape Town airport be named after Krotoa. The role that Doman, Autshumato and Krotoa (together they form the DAK network) played in the history of our country, and of Afrikaans and the Khoi heritage, has not yet been sufficiently acknowledged.

Encouraging is the fact that discussions are under way to rename the East London airport after King Phalo, Xhosa king of the 18th century. This is an indication that the government is finally giving the Xhosa heritage the acknowledgement it deserves, like the King Shaka airport in Durban acknowledges Zulu heritage. We can extend the argument to the Bo Kaap and its Muslim heritage, the Griekwa people and their leaders like Adam Kok and Hendrik le Fleur, and many others.


A post on social media in which New Zealand Premier Jacinda Ardern boasted that all children in Kiwiland are now educated about New Zealand’s history, brought a lump to my throat. I believe steadfastly that this is the place to start. If the government really wants to protect statues and monuments against vandalism, the solution lies in education; not in hiding the statues in “theme parks”.

To ensure that South Africans cultivate respect for their shared heritage, it is important that all learners are taught about their country and the past of its diverse population. South African history ought to be a prescribed subject in the General Teaching and Education Phase (GET) for grades 7 to 9 (from Grade 10, learners start with elective subjects focusing on their future careers). Learners are sensible enough to understand our motto, Unity in Diversity. By receiving the correct information first-hand, it will not only cultivate appreciation for each other’s unique heritage, but we may just discover that we have more in common than we had realised.

Unity is strength

If we are really serious about making this country work, we will all have to realise that recognition of – and appreciation for – our unique and individual heritage is important. But it is of even more importance that we start to focus on the aspects in our society that bind us together as a nation, such as our triumphs in the Rugby World Cup. As Ebrahim Rasool rightly said, we should put more emphasis on the fact that the Springboks are a much stronger team when it is representative of all South Africans, when everyone identifies with the players on the field and can recognise themselves on the field. After all, unity is strength!

Such a team is not only a winner on the field, but even stronger off the field because support for the team can only grow if everyone accepts the bona fides of the team. The best way to preserve statues is not behind lock and key, but to let their legacy live on in the hearts and minds of South Africans. This is what education offers.

Bursaries for research

Instead of spending money on moving statues, the Department of Sport and Culture should make bursaries available to people to do research about their heritage (master’s and doctoral studies). Once the truth about our past has been researched and documented, this knowledge must find its way into the history textbooks. This research should also inform our decisions about which statues should stay and which should go.

If the government is serious about transforming the heritage landscape, it must realise that transformation is not one, single deed. It is a new way of life that must be constantly revisited and adapted according to our changing society. To live together in this country in peace and harmony will require that everyone makes a mind shift – true reconciliation is only possible when we meet one another halfway and are prepared to give up something of our own.


It is good that each of us celebrates our heritage, whether it is with a braai or a dance. For some of us, it is important to celebrate with “sakkie-sakkie”. The younger generation prefers disco and kwaito music and laughs at our old-style dances. But maybe the president has a point when he asked South Africans to celebrate Heritage Day with the Jerusalema dance.

Those who do not agree with the president must think again: journalists can write, academics can reflect and politicians can say what they like. But people decide with their hearts and vote with their feet. Have a look on social media. Jerusalema has proven that it can unite a nation. That must be our goal. 

So, let’s dance! DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    So to the point. Right or wrong, our only hope is to unite and focus on our common identity as South Africans, first and foremost, and then as Zulu South Africans etc thereafter. A leaf we could take out of Americas book.
    As a true second world country we have the advantage of having world class businesses which allows us to compete with the best – ongoing social engineering and lack of appreciation for the private sector is simply destroying our ability to grow our economy. If we remove all legislative obstacles, we can then to use the ensuing bounty from growth to educate our people and to support the millions who have been the victims of policies that subdued their potential. Finally we need competent independent civil servants who are servants of the people and not their pockets.

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