The Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA) has noted with great interest the public debate on the matter of colonial-era public memorials and place names – in this particular case those associated with Cecil John Rhodes – for some a great British statesman and industrialist, and for others an imperialist whose colonial and mining labour policies and practices doomed entire generations of black communities – all across the ‘pink’ map of colonial Africa. While commentators have referred to the Rhodes scholarship as evidence of something more benign to his legacy, for others that very same scholarship has its roots in obscene profits made from a now widely despised migrant labour system he helped to engineer. To expect reconciliation between such divergent views and opinions would be foolish.
So let us stress from the outset that HASA believes that such debate is welcome and that it should spur universities across the country to revisit their policies in respect of the role of public culture and heritage. We also reconfirm HASA’s firm belief that heritage, or more specifically the “national estate” – as described in the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999 – must serve to reconcile the past, heal divisions and advance the interests of social justice and cultural restitution. Without a broadly shared consensus on how we deal with our troubled past and the monuments and landscapes associated with our deeply painful histories, we will continously get stuck without seeing a way forward. As HASA we believe that there are useful principles enshrined in our Constitution as well as in the NHRA that may guide us to a more informed decision on what to do during such troubling moments. It is in this respect that we are uncomfortable with some of the public comments made to date.
The NHRA states that public monuments and memorials are part of the national estate and are therefore protected by law. However, this in itself does not mean that the Act is anti-change – and implicitly therefore favours the heritage of one grouping over another. On the contrary, the Act recognises the need for change but envisions informed and managed change so that the concerns (and biases) of the present may not diminish the opportunity of future generations to access the rich, diverse and often deeply troubling and unsettling remains of our material past.