Unlike statues, greatness isn’t fixed

  • Geoff
When is the right time to build a memorial or erect a statue in honour of a great life, like Nelson Mandela’s, or an inspiring event, like freedom in South Africa? Two minutes after the event, everything is coloured by strong emotion, and people are, figuratively, dancing in the streets or mourning pitifully. Yet a couple of years down the line, the world may be a different place, and everything is seen differently.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Feb 13, 2020

Thirty years ago, on 11 February 1990, when Mandela was released from jail, a sense of euphoria and possibility filled the country. With an eye on the future, grand things were done in the name of burying apartheid and starting afresh.

In 2004, a public statue, a 6m tall figure in bronze of him jiving, was erected in Sandton Square to mark 10 years of democracy. Yet at the same site today, with its opulent shopping mall, this dancing figure is no longer an image of enthusiasm, but one of pathos set off against a country in trouble.

What would Mandela’s statue have looked like if it was made today, when South African democracy faces an onslaught of crime, corruption, and nepotism? While great strides have been made to solidify our democracy, many of the people Mandela punted as the best people to lead the country after he was gone have turned out to be thieves and liars, like his “favourite”, Jacob Zuma. Would Mandela still be jiving today, in the spirit of his statue? The site has become a place where happy tourists whip out their cameras.

Everything changes, not just here, but everywhere. Also in 2004, the notorious Old Fort in Hillbrow in which many anti-apartheid activists had been jailed, was ardently “repurposed” as the seat of the Constitutional Court. Everything from the bricks used to build the new centre, to details inserted in the building’s steps, was carefully rethought and creatively brought to life, involving the most prominent artists and historians.

One of the main drivers behind the project was Justice Albie Sachs, who himself had been active in the fight against apartheid. Arts and history tours were the order of the day, in which fascinated visitors got to hear the story behind Judith Mason’s The Blue Dress artwork, and see beautiful works by the ilk of Kim Berman, Regi Bardavid, William Kentridge, Walter Oltmann, and others.

Here, too, much has changed today with the country’s changing mood. If you visit the centre, you will notice a sense of the moribund. There are no tours. Very few exhibitions are mounted, and the centre of Hillbrow, where this centre is located, is as dangerous and dirty as it once was. Sadly, this is no longer a place for the cossetted tourist.

Greatness isn’t a fixed quality, and there are other monuments which have passed their prime. A once-celebrated edifice to apartheid’s demise which tried to sum it up for history is the Apartheid Museum, created in 2001. Solly and Abe Krok, the millionaire brothers mandated to produce this cultural centre, spared nothing in getting the best on board. Overseas tourists still visit, but it doesn’t evoke great passion from the average South African who has moved on.

In spite of the jaded eyes with which we see them today, all these monuments were potent in their time, allowing post-apartheid ecstasy to be expressed. Mandela statues scattered all over the world are no longer taken much notice of. But there are apartheid-like societies everywhere, from neo-Nazis in Europe to ethno-nationalists who hate migrants. Great men come and go, yet it seems that history repeats itself.


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