Public historians, this is your moment!

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In the past few weeks, statues of male historic figures in public places in South Africa have been splashed with poo and paint of all hues. It has become a veritable underground movement. Cecil Rhodes’ statue has been removed from the University of Cape Town, but around the country, George V, Louis Botha, General Fick, Mahatma Gandhi and Andrew Murray have all had rude paint baths. People have been arrested for crimes against art and history.

South Africa is blessed with a cadre of excellent historians who study the places where the rubber of history meets the road of public perception. They are public historians, who study the ways that history is made visible outside of libraries and classrooms: in statues, monuments, museums, public performances, art, etc. Wait — did I say statues? Oh my! Can it be that a group of academics in the much-defunded and reviled field of the humanities actually has something to contribute to society? Good heavens!

A statue is a hunk of shaped metal. Public historians study how that metal becomes splashed — literally of late, but usually only figuratively — with meaning, and how those meanings change over time. If there was ever a moment to demonstrate the importance of public history to South African society, it is right now. I hope the National Research Foundation is taking notice of the current turmoil over these statues. Increased funding for science and technology is well and good but Rhodes, George, Botha, Fick, Gandhi and Murray show that there are issues and problems that maths and engineering cannot solve. Forward with public history, forward!

My own research has to do with a liberal, apartheid-supporting (yes, supporting) philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town who embodied all the — here comes a bunch of words dear to the heart of academics — contradictions, complexities and nuances of South Africa’s apartheid past. His name was Andrew Murray (1905-1997). The person whose statue was splashed with paint in Wellington last week was his grandfather, Rev Andrew Murray Jnr (1828-1917). In the course of researching the UCT professor, I’ve read up on the Murray family. Into the twists and turns of South African history I have crawled!

From newspaper reports, white residents of Wellington seem perplexed as to why Rev Murray’s statue was splashed with red paint. He was “just” a religious man, a person who had no connection with colonialism, they sigh; ah, these vandals who have no appreciation for simple, godly virtue.

I can’t speak for the motivations of the statue-splashers, but they may have had a very different assessment of Rev Murray. A builder of institutions and movements, a supporter of the Boers in the South African War, he was a pivotal figure in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church — all marked in 1978 by a postage stamp to honour the 150th anniversary of his birth. In his 19th century heyday, he preached with so much inspiration, power and fervour that a movement of ecstatic revivalism was ignited on the veld. In district after district, ordinary white folks got the fever — in droves they suddenly began to speak in tongues and collapse in divine hysteria. He was the first headmaster of Grey College in Bloemfontein.

Nationally, Rev Murray was the elected head of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) at a moment when it had to decide what to do about its coloured congregants — in or out? He argued that the DRC should be formally segregated into the white “mother” church and the coloured and African “daughter” churches. The souls of coloured folks and Africans could be saved by DRC missionaries wielding the Good Book, as long as they remained under the thumb of the white man. Ask Rev Allan Boesak or the DRC’s many historians. They’ll tell you all about it. I’m sorry to break this to the historically challenged residents of Wellington but the DRC’s deep roots of segregation — inspired by Murray — became central elements in the character and conduct of colonialism and white supremacy in South Africa. That might be what some people see when they gaze at the statue of that godly man.

Does this mean that red paint should be aimed at Rev Murray’s statue? Who am I to say? I am quite sure, however, that this is a spectacularly appropriate moment for South Africa’s able cadre of public historians to lead open discussions and seminars across the country about the changing meanings and significance of South Africa’s historical monuments.

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