Reconfiguring the past

Reconfiguring the past

One of the defining images of 2020, alongside that of the ubiquitous COVID-19 virus, has come from news photographs of statues and other memorials commemorating people who were involved in slavery being toppled. It is not just a matter of #RhodesMustFall, but also removing other public statues and memorials that commemorate people whose activities, once seen as praiseworthy and their mercantile or other involvement in slavery and other racially oppressive activities treated as though neutral, are now viewed as abhorrent. The photograph accompanying this blog shows the removal to a watery fate of a statue of Edward Colston, an 18th century Bristol merchant deeply involved in the slave trade and whose philanthropic use of his ensuing fortune is commemorated in various statues.

Removal is of course not the only way in which public commemoration of the past can be configured. Although the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s statue from the UCT campus received major world coverage, what is more usual in the South African context is the ANC government policy of counter-memorialisation. Rather than attempting to remove these material traces so as to undo earlier interpretations of the past, many counter-memorials of different kinds have been instituted alongside and in a sense speaking to earlier memorials of the past. This is to reconfigure rather than obliterate. One striking example amongst many hundreds is the memorial to the fallen Zulu warriors of the battle at Isandlwana, a more organic and symbolically resonant commemoration among the earlier frequently florid Victorian memorials to deceased British soldiers – click HERE for some photographs. The battle site receives many thousands of tourist visitors, who now necessarily have to engage with the other story, the story of those who won the battle but lost the war.

All forms of public commemoration represent a particular point of view. A universal form is not a possibility, tombs of unknown warriors notwithstanding. If such memorials arrive on the commemorative public scene, they are best absorbed, taken for granted, ignored, forgotten. Attempts to censor in order to remake the past are an interesting phenomenon in their own right but are flawed, including as witnessed by the considerable white virtue signalling that has gone on in the UK context around removing such statues and commemorations. The paradox is that as a consequence more people now than at any time have some knowledge of Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes, Henry Dundas and others, but with the distinctions between them in terms of involvement, culpability and venality ignored in a generalised emotive impulse. The ANC government approach of counter-memorialisation, although it has flaws and problems, seems preferable. The past was a different place and they really did do things differently there, so confronting past memorialisation with present commemoration seems a good strategy.

Last updated: 1 January 2021