“You can’t judge a 20th century man by 21st century standards,” said Jani Swartz, one of the panelists on a discussion on the issue of removing the MT Steyn statue which towers in front of the University of the Free State’s (UFS) main building in Bloemfontein.
Making her submissions, Swartz said she would decline to provide a view on whether the statue should be removed or not, however, said that despite the view that Steyn was a white supremacist, she believed that he, in his own way, was a hero for many.
She reminded the mostly black audience of Steyn’s contribution to the Bloemfontein, as he was one of the founders of the ‘Oranje Meisieskool’ in Arboretum, which was founded on the principles that females must be educated, regardless of their creed and background and the school would in those years become a home for many orphans who were unable to access schooling and education, owing to their poor backgrounds.
Her comments were met with much hostility and criticism, with many saying that while Steyn was a hero, he was a hero for white communities and that he pioneered education and empowerment for white females and not all females, including blacks.
UFS SRC president, Asive Dlanjwa, disagreed with the statements Swartz expressed. “He was leading as the president and if he believed so much in the freedom of South Africans, then why was there no freedom for black people in the Free State?
“This is why we (black people) have nothing to celebrate with regards to President Steyn,” Dlanjwa said.
The atmosphere was tense, with some on the panel siding with Swartz while others agreed with Dlanjwa on points he raised.
Professor Jan Rossouw, who also sat on the panel, added that the tug of war on the debate of whether the statue should be removed or not was not helping reconcile black and white South Africans and that both parties must rather find a common ground as to how best they can work together to overcome past injustices caused by South Africa’s racial history.
He further said that unless progress is made within this regard, self-serving politicians will continue to use the same “divide and conquer” tactics former leaders used, as these are proving to be effective, especially with subjects such as the one that was being discussed.
Meanwhile, Ben Mwasinga, a representative from the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA), who was also on the panel, made a presentation of sites which once stood for racial oppression and had since been transformed into more positive spaces.
Examples he cited included the Castle of Good Hope, Robben Island and Constitution Hill, among others.
This to his detriment angered some students who accused him of not being cognizant of the fact that there are distinct differences between the examples he used and an institution of higher learning, as is the case with UFS.
However, Mwasinga defended himself by saying those examples were but references to reiterate his point that transformation in any space is possible and students have a number of alternatives available to them with regards to the statue. He added that he does not believe that covering the statue as per the request of some critics will do any good as it does not detract from the fact that the statue remains on campus.
This discussion was held at the UFS Equitas building on Wednesday, 29 May 2018.
Steyn was the sixth and last president of the independent Orange Free State from 1896 to 1902.