Political PerspectiveBy: Gwen Lister
I GUESS it is an understandable part of human nature that where there has been a (usually) violent overthrow of a draconian regime, people begin to destroy those symbols of an unwanted, often draconian era, and in particular the ‘dictators’ who presided over them.
Few would forget the riveting television footage of a major statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Iraq; recent similar scenes in Libya of symbols of Muammar Gaddafi being defiled and destroyed; and of course, most famous of all, the bringing down, in 1989, of that most famous symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, at a time when our country itself was preparing for self-determination.
MANY Namibians from the exile years, particularly those who studied in what was then East Germany (a staunch ally of the liberation movement) will remember that famous dividing wall, built in 1961 to partition the ‘two Germanies’ and to prevent further exodus from one side to the other. Granted, the Wall was a powerful symbol of Germany’s division and the GDR leadership’s disregard for human rights and basic freedoms when its demolition began, but today there is little left to mark this sad chapter of German history. I was one of those who, prior to the Fall of the Wall, was able to go through what was known as ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, from West to East, and to experience the very different lifestyles on either side of this formidable barrier, which separated families, caused untold misery and hardship and where many lost their lives trying to cross over.
There are still some remnants left of the Wall, including the Brandenburg Gate, but visitors today commonly ask where the wall was, such was the extent of its destruction.
The point I am trying to make here is that history of nations should be preserved where possible if for no other reason than to remind us of what went before, whether good or bad. It is also common practice around the globe that individuals of historical importance are immortalised with a statue of their likeness, and not everything should be destroyed simply because another, different era is upon us. Whether it is Winston Churchill or Sam Nujoma, Kurt von Francois, Hendrik Witbooi or Napoleon, their likeness should not necessarily (always) imply a value judgement, one way or the other.
In years to come Namibian governments of the future which may differ from Swapo, may argue that the statue of Sam Nujoma, planned for the new museum, has to go. Would they be right? Definitely not, in my view, for that statue will tell its own story of a time and a people who believed that he needed to be immortalised. So too with the Reiterdenkmal. The presence of this statue does not ‘celebrate’ the period of German colonialism, but it marks it with a reminder for us all and future generations to come, as to what happened in our history and German colonial era and subsequent genocide was very much part of it. It is for this reason I find the emotional outbursts and calls for its destruction, incomprehensible. How much more difficult will it not be, in years to come, to tell our children’s children from whence they came. Our elders will die, and their stories with them, and we should not wilfully destroy historical markers, such as the Reiterdenkmal, or the statue of the ‘unknown soldier’ at Heroes’ Acre, for that matter, which illustrate our past.
There are global tragedies in the story of destruction of history and historic sites. Among others, the Taliban order to destroy all ancient pre-Islamic figures in Afghanistan in 2001; the recent destruction, by Tuareg rebels, of historic sites in Timbuktu, which were an intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propagation of Islam in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, is also something the world is trying to prevent.
Auschwitz, for example, is not a celebration of the Hitler era. Rather it is a monument to the hundreds of thousands who died there, and also a poignant reminder of a time in history that must never be repeated. There are so many examples.
Whether it is the Reiterdenkmal , the Diaz Cross, Ongulumbashe or the bust of Hosea Kutako in Parliament Gardens, these constitute our history as a country, both good and bad.
Some may argue that a heritage site is not the same thing as a statue of a dictator or symbol of the colonial era, and while this may be so, it is important that we retain reminders of our history, colonial or otherwise. There are few enough as it is.
As I said earlier, it is understandable that strong emotions be associated with certain markers of our past. Shark Island, a ‘concentration camp’ also during the German colonial era, speaks to us of a cruel time in our history; as do the skulls, which have been repatriated at great cost. Yet they form part of a memorial to our history and we will not destroy them because of their historical value.
Like the Berlin Wall, or at least portions thereof, history is part of understanding the present and paving the way to the future.