Minister of Cultural Revolution

Andrew Donaldson writes on Nathi Mthethwa sinister plan to cleanse South Africa of its past


HERITAGE Day should by rights be a relaxed and enjoyable public holiday, an occasion when the sosatie’s cohesion takes precedence over society’s. After all, we braai and we suip because that’s who we are, wherever we are. This of course has not prevented the usual gang of dullards from turning up to spoil the fun, like wet pants Cyril Ramaphosa. 

In an attempt to gee up spirits, the Potemkin president has urged the people to have a crack at a massed wriggle. This, according to TimesLive, will show the world exactly what for, while at the same time celebrating the loamy depths of the nation’s cultural wealth. Ramaphosa’s patriotic cris de coeur accompanied the announcement last week that prime minister Nkosazana Virodene-Nanny-Dlamini-Zuma has moved the country to level 1 lockdown.

“I urge everyone to use this public holiday as family time,” Squirrel said, “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all travelled, to remember those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation. And there can be no better celebration of our South African-ness than joining the global phenomenon that is Jerusalema dance challenge. So I urge all of you to take up this challenge on Heritage Day and show the world what we are capable of.”

No better celebration? Well, we’ve known a few lamb chops that would argue otherwise. But, however galling this infantilising nonsense may be, it would be churlish to begrudge singer Nomcebo and DJ Master KG the success of their tune. 

As excited commentators have pointed out, the song’s video has been viewed more than 137 million times on YouTube. However, the more bibulous regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) have grumbled that this is perhaps 137 million times too many. It is a brave but foolish person who would dare to suggest that, having left it more than 40 years ago, Elvis will definitely not be returning to the building. Musical tastes change, sadly, and some moving on is perhaps in order.

Still, better the massed aerobics of a “dance challenge” than the toxic horrorshow waiting in the wings, courtesy of Nathi Mthethwa, the sinister arts and culture minister. 

A spiteful individual with an oddly pointed head, Mthethwa introduced Heritage Month some weeks back by telling parliament that significant chunks of the country’s past are to be airbrushed from a new, shinily antiseptic, ANC-approved version of South African history.

There are plans, he said, to remove statues linked to “apartheid and colonialism” from public spaces and dump them in a “theme park”. According to reports, a “government cluster” — could anything sound more ominously Orwellian? — has called for an audit of “offensive names, symbols and structures” as well as the development of a framework for the relocation of these statues.

“The cluster advocated for the development of a theme park or theme parks which will be cultural spaces hosting the relocated statues or memorials,” Mthethwa said. “The ‘theme’ for the theme parks will be for the protagonists of colonialism and apartheid.” A more fitting “theme”, some would suggest, is “Get in an orderly line, it’s glorious Pyongyang time!” 

It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that a catalogue of objects linked to “apartheid and colonialism” would be fairly extensive. Strictly speaking, a claim that the ANC itself is a colonial project would not be without foundation. 

Mthethwa is aware of what is protected in terms of the 1999 National Heritage Resources Act. In a significant reboot of the old National Monuments Act, the new laws greatly expanded the definition of “heritage” to include — in addition to existing historical artefacts, buildings and statues — a great many “intangible” aspects of “inherited culture”. These would include, for example, such diverse properties as scenic views, manufacturing skills and popular memory.

In a somewhat cynical twist of logic, the Little Jingo now suggests that removing statues from the public gaze and sticking them in parks may be good for the collective memory. These parks would be established “in the name of posterity” and would “effectively be in line with the adage, ‘lest we forget’.”

While acknowledging that such works do enjoy legislated protection, Mthethwa maintains they can be removed in “a prescribed manner”. As he put it, somewhat disingenuously, “We have decided that they should be preserved and not thrown into ‘the dustbin’ of history. Our own experience shows us that if you opt for the route of dumping them, people are going to demand them.”

Quite why relocating the statue, let’s say, of Louis Botha outside Parliament in Cape Town to a “theme park” elsewhere would be regarded as anything other than “dumping” is a little beyond me. Besides, it’s preposterous that a gang of thieving philistines profoundly hostile towards the cultural values or beliefs of others should be now entrusted with the curatorship of same. You may as well get Daisy de Melcker to do the catering. 

If Mthethwa had the slightest interest in heritage, he would maybe kick up a fuss about the Pierneef painting that mysteriously disappeared from the Free State legislature when Ace Magashule was premier and not bully our schools into churning out little flag-waving nationalists.

Learning from others

History is a messy and often unpleasant business, full of nastiness and much that is discomforting. Debates about the past are famously fractious, but sensible people wouldn’t want it any other way. 

The British historian William Dalrymple, for instance, recently waded into controversy by suggesting that a “museum of colonialism” be established in the UK, where children could learn about “the really terrible things that happened in our past”. He was addressing a debate at a literary festival in India that was inspired by the recent toppling in Bristol of a statute of the English slaver Edward Colston.

“When we go to Germany we do not expect to see Hitler or any of the Nazi war criminals or SS officers standing on plinths, and in the same way we have to weed out war criminals from our country,” Dalrymple said. “It’s not a matter of being woke or a matter of being fashionable or trendy but it’s being realistic about some of the really terrible things that happened in our past and teaching them to our children. If we put them in a museum of colonialism, this is an opportunity to teach, because we can set up a museum, which will do what at the moment what the curriculum fails to do.”

Dalrymple is the author of the magisterial The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury, 2019), a devastating account of Britain’s exploitation of the subcontinent. He is disconcerted by his compatriots’ ignorance of these matters. “When the British go out into the world,” he told his audience, “they don’t know what the Indians know about the Raj or what the Irish know about the famine; they don’t know what the Australians know about the mass extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines, so we need to teach this in our schools and the opportunity of setting up a museum of colonialism with some of these war criminals and other statues seems to me an opportunity we must take.”

But others at the festival disagreed. The historian Edward Chancellor was quoted as saying, “The current statue-bashing is part of the woke movement with its cancel culture, denunciations, forced confessions, censorship, intolerance and profound anti-intellectualism. 

“Give an inch to these people and no statue will be left standing. It is an assault on the values of the Enlightenment and espouses a cultural nihilism. Behind this is a woke approach to history that is ill-informed, one-sided and anachronistic. It can’t understand or accept that different periods have different values and that the historian should strive to be impartial.”

The writer and journalist Swapan Dasgupta was also opposed to removing colonial monuments. “History was never going to be written on the basis of how one statue in Bristol looked,” Dasgupta said. “This is not an attempt to rewrite history or make history a little more even-handed. What it really amounts to is airbrushing history, throwing out a lot of uncomfortable things, and believing in sanitising the past to make it palatable to contemporary morality.”

There is much to consider here. Recent comments by Tory MP and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg about the “benevolent” treatment of Boer women and children in concentration camps does suggest a wilful ignorance on the part of the British political establishment about the atrocious aspects of the imperial project. A few history lessons are perhaps in order.

But the iconoclasm is worrying. The most venerated of all such institutions, the British Museum, recently found itself accused of hypocrisy for making statements about being “aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere” whilst continuing to display the Benin Bronzes, treasures looted by British soldiers in a punitive exercise in 1897. The Nigerians want them returned, and museums across Europe are now facing a deluge of restitution claims.

Another “decolonisation” row has erupted over the decision by Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, one of the world’s leading anthropological and ethnographic institutions, to remove from display a collection of shrunken heads, or tsansas, the battle trophies of South American tribes. The museum claimed that the exhibition of human remains “reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s core values”. But others argue their removal is the action of “small-minded” people.

The Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long put it thus: “But wasn’t the whole point of killing people and removing their skulls through their neck before boiling their heads to be powerful and ‘savage’? No one boils a head and thinks: ‘I hope in 200 years they’ll see this for the finely nuanced and culturally interesting gesture it is.’”

Another sideshow attraction

Johannesburg does at least have the highly regarded Apartheid Museum. It explores “reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking” and proudly declares itself to be the “pre-eminent museum in the world dealing with 20th century South Africa, at the heart of which is the apartheid story”. It is a popular tourist attraction, but I wonder if visitors are aware that its creation is due to satisfying a “social responsibility” clause in the granting of casino rights? 

No matter. A more interesting fact is that its developers, twins Abe and Solly Krok, made their first fortunes peddling skin-lightening creams during the late apartheid years. The museum has no trigger warnings about ironic content.