We don’t need another banal statue, we need to raise people from despair
The money spent on a 9m OR Tambo statue should have been used on education, health - the list goes on
When I first read of the erection of the towering 9m statue of Oliver Tambo at the Johannesburg airport earlier this week, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was a man of substance, known for his deep faith, immense sacrifices and a profound humanity. He deserves such recognition. On the other hand, SA now has more statues honouring great men than most countries in the world. Which raises the intriguing question: why do nationalists love hoisting (and downing) statues?
It is, of course, to send a message, and here, timing helps interpretation. As the Hawks make their way around the country arresting allegedly corrupt politicians, we are reminded more than ever that the country is drowning in a swamp of corruption. The money meant to rescue the poor is being grabbed from open mouths. When the Solidarity Fund was started, I posted this Twitter message: “Mr President, can you guarantee that every cent in that fund would reach the poor?” Of course, we now know the answer to that question; four new courts have just been established to deal with Covid-19 corruption. So what does our government do? Raise a huge statue of a moral icon amid thieving dwarfs. It is hoped that by looking up in awe at another African big man, you would not look around you at the devastation of poverty and neglect made visible by the coronavirus.
Some say the message of the Tambo statue is bald, unimaginative and lacking educational value. SA’s two most prominent scholars of monuments make this point in different ways. Prof Brenda Schmahmann, from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), asks of the new statue: “Can we now move on from a tired and conventional way of commemorating worthy people to one that is progressive and worthwhile?” Cape Town’s Prof Grant Parker, now head of classics at Stanford University in the US, criticises “the aesthetics of the gigantic” in South African commemorations and its limited pedagogic value: “We cannot assume,” he says, “that such statues engage viewers in today’s visually saturated world. Most lack an interactive element.”..