The MT Steyn Statue: PT 1 – Statues in public discourse

Greg Mcqueen[a]

On the weekend of the 27th of June 2020, the Statue of MT Steyn was removed from its place of prominence in front of the Main building on the University of the Free State Bloemfontein Campus. This first article in the series examines local and global perspectives on the role of statues and their removal in shaping public environments.

In recent weeks, the role of statues in public spaces have come under increased scrutiny. The ripple effects of protests in the US, over the death of George Floyd and police brutality, have seen statues across the world vandalised or removed due to their perceived racist connotations.

The statue of Edward Colston, British merchant and slave trader is toppled before being thrown into the Bristol Harbour. Photo Credit:

A global movement

Across the world, people have begun to rethink whether the statues standing in their public spaces represent  the type of society they would like to live in. In the USA, statues representing a history of past injustices committed against black Americans, often commemorating slave traders or those who fought to protect the slave trade[1] have been defaced or torn down. A statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and merchant, was thrown into the Bristol dock during solidarity protests in the UK[2] and in Belgium, Statues of King Leopold ii have been vandalised for his role in the brutalities committed in the Congo[3]. Globally we are seeing  an awakening to the knowledge that the histories we celebrate shape our day to day lived experiences and that in order to create more just and equitable societies we need to think about how we tell these stories.

The statue removals which we have witnessed in the past few months have been inherently violent in nature. Those calling for the removal of the statue seek to not only remove the statue but to destroy what it represents. The statue, in its permanence, it’s fixedness, is a physical embodiment of the principles or histories which these groups are protesting. To destroy the statue through violence and vandalism is an outlet for the anger against the systems which the statue represents. To destroy the statues helps to assuage the pain associated with that past.

This month, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes was beheaded at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. Photo Credit:

Spatially, the celebration or removal of statues speaks of both how we choose to remember the past and the type of society we wish to live in today. Because of their visceral, representative nature, statues carry connotations for the people who encounter them. If you identify with what the statue represents to you, you will feel welcome in the space around it, but if you associate negative connotations with the statue, the opposite is true. Though some statues may have been appropriate at the time of their erection, they may now represent something completely different in the public mind. In South Africa, public statues of old white men are often automatically associated with the Apartheid regime. Working with the legacy of historical statues who no longer represent current values poses interesting design and cultural questions.

Not a new discussion

The conversation around the role of statues in post colonial societies is not a new one. India has been moving  colonial statues from places of public prominence 1920’s[4]. They are either converted into museum pieces, allowed to fall into disrepair away from the public eye, or given as gifts to other nations[5].

Empty plinths at the Coronation Grounds in New Delhi where statues of Britich Imperial figures once stood. Photo Credit: (Nvvchar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

In the 90’s South Korea wrestled with how to deal with imperial Japanese monuments, remnants of the Japanese rule which ended in 1945[6]. Yu Hong-June, a korean cultural critic argued to simply ‘let them rot’. He argued that to allow monuments to the former oppressive regime to fall into decline and eventually disappear would be a perpetual reminder that the violence the regime represented was a mask for its fragility.

This is the great spatial debate; leaving the statues in place is an affront to those negatively affected by contemporary connotations associated with the statue. Whilst removing or destroying the statues represses a history which should not be forgotten.

In South Africa

Statues and memorials in many post colonial societies are contentious issues, but in a Post Apartheid South Africa, those complexities are heightened. In the US, statues of slave owners quite clearly fall on the wrong side of history. Removing British colonial statues in India was not a particularly sensitive issue because after the fall of the Raj, the statues no longer represented any significant cultural population in the country.

The statue of Paula Kruger at Church Square in Pretoria was vandalised in 2015. Photo Credit:

In South Africa, the removal of statues erected before 1994 is far more contentious. While today, most are associated with the legacy of Apartheid, they are also the physical, built manifestation of a unique Afrikaner cultural legacy. A cultural legacy which is not present in any other part of the world. For a relatively small (on a global scale) and young culture, like Afrikaans, representations of cultural permanence and history help to shape cultural identity.  How do we balance conserving a limited cultural heritage with the need to represent physically and spatially a new societal reality in which we want all members to feel welcome and included?

The national Development Plan 2030 (NPD 2030) describes the state as trying to cultivate an environment that is both inclusive and socially just[7].In a county where we still live according to Apartheid designed enclaves of class and racial homogeneity,  the only spaces where we come into contact with people who are different to us are public spaces and at large institutions, like universities. “Recent literature postulates that non-recognition or misrecognition in the metros or city spatial landscape can inflict harm, be a form of oppression, or imprison someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being and belonging”[8]. The landmarks we move past every day have a direct impact on all of our spatial experiences. Just because you do not experience the negative connotation attached to the statue, does not mean that it is not offensive to a significant portion of the population. If the goal of the design of public and institutional spaces is for inclusivity, then we need to examine how these spaces speak of the past to the people who use them today. For many, pre-democracy statues represent a history of violence and exclusion. How can you truly belong in a space which represents the historical oppression of your race?

Negotiating cultural identity

How we choose to represent ourselves symbolically represents how we wish to see ourselves as a nation. To leave all pre democracy statues in place would be to fail to recognise the real pain felt by those who associate them with Apartheid. To destroy them would be to destroy monuments which refer to the history of a significant and uniquely South African culture. The contested nature of our public spaces means that any alteration to them must be negotiated. How do we balance the need to preserve and  conserve important historical and cultural artefacts whilst making public and institutional spaces welcoming for all?

If we’re serious about building an inclusive society, this is a discussion which must be had. The alternative is protest and violence against systems which aren’t moving fast enough to address the systematic wrongs of the past. In 2015, the University of Cape Town was forced to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its main campus[9]after weeks of violent student protest and vandalism against the statue itself. The statue was seen as a manifestation of structural issues at the university which were experienced as exclusionary by some students. In 2016, a statue of President Swart was necklaced and damaged by students at the University of the Free State and was subsequently removed from its place of prominence on the Bloemfontein campus[10]. The violence again resulted from protests against systems deemed to be unjust.

The statue of CR Swart at the UFS Bloemfontein Campus was vandalised before being destroyed in 2016. Photo Credit:

In the midst of the global discussion around the role of statues in our public spaces, in June this year, the University of the Free State removed the Statue of MT Steyn which had stood in front of the Main building on its Bloemfontein Campus for 91 years. The removal of the statue brought to a close a three year process, initiated by the Rector and SRC to determine the statue’s fate. It is the first time in South Africa that a public statue has been removed from its place of prominence after a process initiated by the institution housing the statue. The final outcome was deemed satisfactory by both those wishing to destroy the statue and those wishing to preserve it.

Important conversations

As we consciously and unconsciously shape our society through the design of its spaces, it is important to acknowledge the spaces, monuments and artefacts we’ve inherited and to understand how they affect all of us today. We need to keep having uncomfortable conversations about how we create just civic spaces for all of society.

* Part 2 of this article will examine the process the university undertook to determine the fate of the MT Steyn Statue.

[a] Greg McQueen is a candidate architect and part-time lecturer at the University of the Free State. He is interested in the spaces between buildings, inner city rejuvenation and how architecture shapes societal relationships.


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