The MT Steyn Statue: PT 2 – The Process

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 second article in the series examines the process the university undertook to determine the statue’s future.

As global discussions around the role of statues in our public spaces have been thrust into the spotlight, the University of the Free State led a consultative process to determine the future of the statue of MT Steyn on its main campus.

In June this year, the UFS removed the Statue of MT Steyn which had stood in front of the Main building for 91 years. The statue’s removal 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 consultative process initiated by the institution housing the statue. While at UCT, and previously at the UFS, statues have been vandalised and forcibly removed, this process was marked by its peaceful and consultative process.

The MT Steyn statue

MT Steyn served as president of the Orange Free State from 1896 to 1902. An advocate for peace, he represented the Free State in talks with Lord Kitchener in the build up to the Anglo Boer War in an attempt to avert war[1] and was  involved in the peace talks which helped to bring the war to a close in 1902. After the war, he was involved in the establishment of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein and was buried there after his death in 1916. Though not the founder of the University of the Free State, he advocated for its establishment. The statue of Steyn was erected at the UFS in 1929, 25 years after it opened. The cost of erection was paid for by the Afrikaanse Studentebond (Afrikaans Student Union), who sought to honour him for the role he played in bringing higher education to the Free State.

The statue of MT Steyn unveiled in front of the University’s Main Building on 28 September 1929 as 1000 spectators look on. Photo Credit:

The statue was positioned in a place of prominence, in front of the University’s Main Building, looking east toward the heart of Bloemfontein. Double life sized and standing on a stone plinth, it dominated the public space at the heart of the campus in which it sat. It was sculpted by Anton van Wouw, a preeminent South African sculptor who was pivotal to the development of sculpture in the country. Not only is the statue an important cultural symbol, it is a valuable piece of South Africa’s art history.

A statue for its time

For the people who commissioned and built it, the statue was an appropriate tribute to a man who had fought to maintain the independence of the Orange Free State, was a hero in the Anglo Boer War, and advocated for the establishment of the first university in the Free State. Today however, many students at the university conflate the statue with negative sentiments around Apartheid, segregation, violence, and institutionalised racism.[2] So what to do with the statue? How to honour the past whilst being mindful of the present-day student experience?

The university chose to follow a consultative approach.

A process of consultation

In 2017, Prof Jansen, then Vice Chancellor and Rector of the university of the Free State, initiated an Integrated Transformation Plan[3]; a number of committees tasked with analysing current conditions across each facet of the student experience and proposing changes which would ‘radically accelerate transformation on campus’. A Names, symbols, and Spaces Task Team (NSSTT) was formed to investigate existing infrastructure on campus and determine what changes need to be made to create a more welcoming student environment. Discussing the MT Steyn statue, whose location and prominence had been questioned several times in the past was part of this Task Team’s mandate.

The statue of MT Steyn as it stood before it was removed. Situated on the Rooi Plein, at the heart of the UFS Main campus, it occupied a position of power and importance. Photo Credit: Kobus du Preez

In early 2018, the UFS SRC requested (not for the first time) that the statue of MT Steyn be removed because of the negative connotations it carried for many students. Understanding the validity and urgency of the SRC’s claim, the new Vice Chancellor and Rector, Prof. Francis Peterson, appointed a 4-person Special Task Team (STT) from the university staff to investigate the role of the statue on campus and to suggest a way forward. The STT was comprised of Dr. Chitja Twala (History Department, now Vice-Dean of Humanities), Kobus Du Preez (Architecture), Motsaathebe Serekoane (Anthropology) and JC van der Merwe (Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice).

The Task Team’s role was twofold. First, to appoint an independent expert in history and architecture to conduct a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) and second to manage the process of public participation. The STT was required to engage in regular consultation with the SRC and NSSTT on it’s progress. They appointed Anton Roodt, a professional architect recognized for his expertise in historical architecture in the Free State[b], to conduct the HIA.

Making the statue topical

Plan of the public art installation showing it’s positioning around the MT Steyn Statue. The installation was careful to ensure that the statue was not directly influenced by the installation nor to show any bias toward a preferred future for the statue. Photo Credit:
The mirrored triangular prism in front of the statue. When walking up the Rooi Plein toward the main building, the prism obscured the statue from view, giving some indication of what the space would look like if the statue were to be removed. Photo Credit:

In July of 2018, the STT erected a public art installation at the statue to bring it’s positioning into the public consciousness. The installation consisted of a large, mirrored triangular prism, with printed information about the statue on the three faces placed in front of the statue, benches placed around the statue, and suggestion boxes for written submissions. Though the installation was only up in July, the process of public participation stretched from July to September and involved seminars, public discussions, radio and television interviews and public opinion pieces[4]. Over 1000 written submissions and a number of oral submissions were received from across the university community and interested parties over the three months.

In late October of that year, Prof Peterson presented the final HIA, the findings and recommendations of the STT and his own personal comments to the University Council. Each suggested the removal of the statue from the campus and its relocation to the Anglo Boer War Museum, the site of the Women’s Memorial and Steyn’s grave. On 23 November 2018, the UFS Council approved the relocation of the statue.

A question of ownership & responsibility

But whilst the statue was originally paid for by the Afrikaanse Studentebond and it was located on the University of the Free State Campus, it is protected by the South African Heritage Act, No 25 of 1999. The act protects the statue from alteration, damage or relocation. In the Free State, the Free State Heritage Resource Authority (FSPHRA) administers the Act and is responsible for the identification and management of heritage resources. The MT Steyn Statue is of cultural significance and thus falls under the FSPHRA’s jurisdiction. The university therefore needed to apply to them for permission to remove, store and re-erect the state.

After initially declining, the FSPHRA granted the university permission (via a permit) to remove the statue on 8 May 2019. However, five days later, on 13 May the permit was suspended after the FSPHRA received appeals against the statue’s removal from Afriforum and several local religious organisations. The matter was elevated to the FSPHRA Council and the university was given a chance to respond. On 27 August of 2019, the University was informed that the appeal had been upheld and that the original permit to remove that statue had been revoked.

Solutions to the deadlock

The University then approached the Free State MEC for Sport, Art, Culture and Recreation, Ms Limakatso Mahase, for leave to nullify the council’s decision and allow them to move the statue. The MEC appointed a tribunal to adjudicate the dispute. The tribunal sat on March 4 2020 and heard representations from the UFS, the FSPHRA and other interested parties. On 9 June 2020 it published its findings in favour of the University, finally allowing them to remove, store and re-erect the statue.

A quiet removal

The MT Steyn statue being removed on June 27 2020. Photo Credit: Kobus Du Preez

MT Steyn’s family, who had been kept abreast of developments and favoured the statue’s removal, requested that the statue be removed from the campus with as little fanfare as possible. So it was that on Saturday 27 June 2020, one year and 7 months after the Council approved it’s removal, in the midst of a national lockdown, the statue was removed and taken into storage with only a few staff members present to witness the event. Negotiations between the University and the Museum have recently been concluded and the statue will soon be permanently erected at the Museum. It is hoped that the statue’s new home, as part of an exhibition of Steyn’s life and contribution to the Free State, will give a more well rounded impression of the man and his influence than it did as an isolated monument at the university.

A win-win situation

Removing and re-erecting the statue seems to be the most equitable solution to the question. It is neither destroying one culture nor ignoring another. The statue is no longer present on the campus where it had made some students feel unwelcome and moving the statue to a public institution will allow those who wish to view it to do so.

The Rooi Plein after the statue was removed and the paving re-laid. It is hard to tell where the statue stood. Photo Credit: Hein Raubenheimer.

Consultation as an alternative to violence

The process undertaken by the UFS has proven that an alternative to current practices of conserving heritage is possible. It is neither ignoring the legitimate desires of a large portion of the population nor waiting for violence to erupt before evaluating public monuments and statues. This third way, a proactive approach which honours both the present and the past and provides a model for other institutions to follow.

* Part 3 of this article will examine what comes next, how we can treat post-statue spaces in a just and representative way.

*Most of the information gathered for this article is from an interview with Kobus du Preez, member of the STT.

Timeline for the removal of the Steyn Statue. Image Credit: Author.

A summary of the University’s process

  1. The UFS SRC requested that the statue be removed
  2. The Vice Chancellor & Rector Prof Peterson appointed a special task team to investigate the statue’s future. The task team was comprised of experts in the field of space, architecture and historical and anthropological meaning. Experts with backgrounds in applicable fields: placemaking, historical and anthropological meaning and reconciliation.
  3. The STT had 3 roles:
    a) They appointed an independent expert to produce a Heritage Impact Assessment on the statue
    b) To run a process of public participation which was fazed as follows:
    i) A public art installation to bring the statue into public discourse.
    ii) A 3-month window to receive written and oral submissions across all three UFS campuses.
    c) To summarize the public submissions into a set of proposals.
  4. The HIA, proposals taken from the public participation process and the Rector’s own suggestions were then presented to the University Council which decided to relocate the statue to the Anglo Boer War Museum.
  5. The university Council agreed to remove the statue from its current position and store it until such time as it could be re-erected at the Anglo Boer War Museum.
  6. The university then applied to the FSPHRA for permission to remove the statue and after a number of appeals, permission was finally granted.

[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.


[b] Roodt is currently involved in the refurbishment of the Bloemfontein City Hall, which was extensively damaged by a fire a few years ago, and has been involved in a number of historical preservations and refurbishments across the Free State.

Removal of statues, public discourse, #must fall, MT Steyn statue

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