Statues and heroes: the dangers of erasing too much

Confederate flag and Old SA flag

Would a man die for a flag? Symbols evoke rage and happiness. Should images of a bad past vanish when times change? America’s Confederate flag and South Africa’s old apartheid flag easily raise tensions

WITS University’s faculty members have been warned to prepare for trouble, as universities brace for protests against university fee hikes for 2018, amidst vehement demands for “decolonisation” in academia and abolition of symbols of the country’s racist past. 

Symbolism contains potent energies everywhere. Recent displays in alt-right marches in Charlottesville in the United States of swastikas and anti-Jewish and anti-black slogans, evoked calls for removing confederate statues across America for celebrating people who defended slavery.

What about statues of anti-Semites? An Israeli organisation on Tuesday demanded New York City remove memorials to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of New Amsterdam (now New York), because of his anti-Semitism, saying he “targeted Jews and other minorities including Catholics” and tried prohibiting them from settling there. Yet New York has one of the largest, most successful Jewish communities in the world. Most Jews probably don’t even know of his attitudes and smoked the eponymous brand of cigarettes for years.

The potency of symbolism and stereotypes spills into literature and film. Should Shakespeare and Dickens be banned? Critics say the former’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. And Dickens’ fictional character Fagin, portrayed as a Jew in his novel Oliver Twist, is described as a “receiver of stolen goods.” Fagin has evoked much debate. In an introduction to a 1981 reissue of Oliver Twist, writer Irving Howe said Fagin was considered an “archetypical” Jewish villain.

A theatre in Memphis, Tennessee recently stopped showing the movie Gone With the Wind for being “racially insensitive.” The 1939 classic which won eight Oscars, tells the story of a Georgia plantation owner’s daughter during and after the civil war, based on a Pulitzer prize-winning 1936 novel. Considered a great American work, it is criticised for romanticising slavery. Celebrated writers, Roald Dahl and Graham Greene have been similarly fingered.

In South Africa, myriad symbols of our unhappy past, including statues, street names, the old flag and parts of the national anthem, remain all around us. Four people were arrested last weekend for disturbances at a Cape Town pub after complaining about the old South African flag hanging on the wall, symbolising apartheid. Some people call for Die Stem, the apartheid-era national anthem, to be removed from the current multi-language national anthem.

The Voortrekker monument near Pretoria – now renamed Tshwane – remains intact, with its dramatic frescoes portraying heroic-looking Afrikaners seeking freedom from English domination, fighting off assegai-wielding black warriors defending their land. Any attempt to tamper with this potent symbol of Afrikaner history would provoke violence. However, there have been numerous name changes of streets and towns from apartheid leaders to anti-apartheid fighters, which have been well received. At Cape Town University, in contrast, removal of a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes provoked confrontations.

It is right for people to resist being bombarded with public symbols of oppression, particularly in public spaces. But what about private spaces? In the name of freedom of expression, should people be allowed to display whatever they want there? Such as a pub?

There are no easy answers. Where is the red line for “acceptable” content? Sanitising everything is dangerous – changing the past, rather than putting it into context. If we sanitise everything because of unsavoury aspects, we leech rich texture from history and culture, ending up with only the “party line” dictated by political correctness guardians.

Such was the Soviet Union. And in fascist societies, past and present, the only permitted symbols are those glorifying the regime and its leaders.

Politicians have a significant role to play. Exploiting symbols for populist, sinister goals is always tempting. For students, a university’s role is to teach them to discern the healthy red line. They battle amidst the tensions rampant in the country and the tricks of politicians.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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