A place of learning, inspiration, debate and celebration

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By TONY LANKESTER

We are well aware of the sensitivity around discussions of renaming buildings, cities and roads, and the frustration and, often, anger that emerges in those discussions.

In the interests of correcting some misperceptions that have crept into the debate, and hopefully relieving some of the anxiety around a name change for the Monument, I’d like to make the following response to Jock and various others who have expressed concerns:

  1. Firstly, the decision to change the name of the building was made at the end of 2015 by the Council of the Foundation. This started a process of discussions with a wide range of stakeholders that is ongoing. We are now asking for submissions from the public. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly and the document we prepared calling for submissions outlines the rationale for the decision. I urge those who are interested to read the rationale which can be downloaded at www.foundation.org.za
  2. The renaming is not – as some are suggesting – an attempt to rewrite history, or write the Settlers out of the South African narrative. Just the opposite. One of the most exciting ideas that has emerged from discussions so far is for the Monument to house a new Legacy Centre that will tell the stories of all who have made a contribution or played a part in shaping the Eastern Cape: the Settlers, the amaXhosa, the Koi people, the Griqua, the Afrikaners and others. We value the power of storytelling and don’t want the building to keep telling  just one story – the Council wants everyone to have the space to speak, be heard and, hopefully, the Monument can be a space that will enhance mutual appreciation and understanding between those who call the Eastern Cape and South Africa home.

The contributions of the Settlers will not be ‘written out’ or diminished by sharing the building to tell the stories of all those whose hard work and sacrifice shaped our City and our province over the past 300 years. Such a Legacy Centre, if properly set up and funded, could attract large numbers of local and international visitors, and create dozens of new jobs in the city and boost local tourism, including B&Bs, restaurants, and other cultural attractions in our city.

  1. As much as there are those who feel strongly that it is part of ‘their’ heritage and therefore deserving of special protection, our discussions and research shows unambiguously that many others see and feel the Monument as constantly evoking conquest, colonialism and apartheid. The name “1820 Settlers Monument” is, to many residents of our City and others, a constant reminder of conquest and oppression, a feeling intensified by the fact that the building is so physically dominant over the town – in both its design and location. My question to those who argue for the retention of the name is this: What are we to do with the pain our fellow South Africans feel and express? Should we ignore it, dismissing their feelings and views because we believe them to be wrong? Or should we, in the interests of progress and reconciliation, acknowledge that pain, and find a way that we can reinvent the building in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation? Wouldn’t the most constructive thing we can do is use the Monument to build bridges? And if its name is a hindrance to that, why cling to it?
  1. What would the Settlers themselves think? In much of the discussion dramatic references are made to Settlers “rolling in their graves”. I disagree. In the very founding of the building it was explicitly stated that it was intended as a place for free speech and debate. The naming of the Thomas Pringle Hall, and Olive Schreiner Theatre in the building bears this out. Pringle was a staunch abolitionist and proponent of free speech, while Schreiner was an anti-war campaigner and feminist at a time when it was provocative, even dangerous, to be so. They both outraged many of the English ‘Settlers’ in their time with their views but fortunately much of their approach prevailed. My sense is that they would both welcome any debate and discussion around renaming the building to something that is progressive and inclusive. Those who try and shut down the debate on the basis that they find it painful or offensive are, ironically, taking a position that is at odds with the original spirit of the building, and with the personal philosophies of many of the Settlers it commemorates. And are being insensitive to the pain and offence felt by others.
  2. There is an argument that the building was built to commemorate the Settlers, paid for by their descendants, and therefore the name chosen 60 years ago should live in perpetuity. We don’t agree. Apart from the factual inaccuracy (the building wouldn’t have been completed were it not for very substantial funding and political support received from the Afrikaner Nationalist government of the day), there is a broader matter of historical perspective. The world is vastly different in 2019 from when the building was first conceived, and we don’t believe we are duty bound to perpetuate what, at the time, was a real and genuine sentiment but, in hindsight, we know to be a misguided one. Just because something was generally accepted as “right and correct” in the past, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect as we grow, and evolve our thinking if we want to have any hope for a unified future for our nation.

We want the Monument to continue to be a symbol and a place of learning, inspiration, debate and celebration. We want it to attract and welcome many thousand more visitors and be used all year around more fully. And it is the view of the Council that, like so many institutions around the world, if we don’t embark on a process of reflection we render the building an irrelevance, an anachronism and a continued source of pain for many. I urge all those who feel strongly against changing the name of the building to consider, just for a moment, the views of all those who are part of our city and community, and add to some of the conversations we have had in the past few years by participating in this process.

The words of one Settler, Henry Dugmore, immortalised on the walls of the Monument, resonate in this debate: “We must take root and grow, or die where we stand.”

Just as we intend recording and commemorating all of our roots, the debate around renaming and reconsidering the role of the Monument in our civic life is part of the growth.

We welcome anyone with an interest in that growth to participate in helping us in this process and, in doing so, help reinvigorate the economy and cultural life of a city that is currently in need of new initiatives.

  • Tony Lankester is the CEO of the Grahamstown Foundation and the National Arts Festival.

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