Growing up I had a lot of trophies and medals. These tokens of success were earned throughout a decade-long competitive track and field career. My medal count probably exceeded 100, and every time I walked through my father’s house I’d see the sun shining on the gold, silver and bronze ornaments displayed in the living room – collecting dust and indifference.

That was back in the United States, thousands of miles away from my new home in Cape Town, where these emblems of victory are even further distanced from my mind. Memorialisation has long been riddled with conflict. As a young adult living in the U.S. my natural ambivalence to, and questioning of, historic memorials has always been deliberate, not at all like the casual thoughtlessness of my personal memorabilia. Unlike many Americans, I don’t feel the slightest bit patriotic in the presence of Abraham Lincoln’s D.C. monument. My understanding of Lincoln was not that of a hero and stark abolitionist. As a descendent of enslaved people, and a purveyor of truth, I would come to realise that his complicity and contributions to my ancestors’ degradation was not something that warranted admiration or memorialisation.

My feelings of discomfort with Lincoln’s Memorial and other monuments erected to honour the legacies of predominantly white male figures is not an unpopular one. It is a common sentiment shared among many black Americans. Globally, former colonies and other collective victims of widespread racial, religious, and gender based violence, are also plagued with the presence of domineering statues and landmarks emblematic of a grossly violent legacy.

Movements in The USA And South Africa

As a temporary resident of South Africa and a native of the U.S., I’ve been fortunate to witness, through the guise of a foreigner and a citizen, an ally and an outspoken resistor, two starkly dedicated resistance movements. Both continue to shift the methodologies of memorialisation, and at its core, the social, political, and economic authorities that have allowed these monuments to stand.

The obvious parallels between the sociopolitical and racialised climates of the U.S. and South Africa have continued to reveal themselves as I conduct my postgrad research in African Studies at UCT. South African’s Rhodes Must Fall movement, meant to redefine and repurpose memorialisation in public spaces, mirrors American’s efforts to prevent white supremacist emblems from occupying public sites that would otherwise be considered safe. The unsanctioned removal of colonial monuments in Cape Town and confederate statues in Durham, North Carolina, have served as collateral damage in a broader struggle meant to demolish archaic systems that reinforce contemporary forms of marginalisation, segregation, and civil rights violations.

Memorials tell a story about power today

Many scholars have written about the ways in which heritage memorials and their locations are directly reflective of present-day power structures. The overwhelming presence of white memorialised figures in public areas of distinction, such as state capitals, elite academic institutions, and judiciary spaces, reinforces the premise of white male superiority and consequently gives people of colour a false sense of inferiority. As colonial and confederate statues dominate many of these spaces, the beneficiaries of its legacies, i.e. white males, maintain a level of control over the past, present, and future narratives and occupations of these sites.

Confinements of memorials honouring people of colour to areas exclusively designated for them corresponds with the forced displacement of POC in to these same communities through tactics such as redlining in the U.S., and apartheid sanctioned forced removals in South Africa. The realities of ethnic memorials and their restriction to ethnic spaces, has been totally normalised, particularly in the states.

What’s at state in the contestation?

The interpretations of memorials’ various power dynamics are deeply embedded in the discourses of both South Africa and the U.S. Those who vote against removing statues of colonial and confederate figures, are afraid that their ancestors’ contribution to history will be erased, subsequently limiting their current claims and occupation of the land. Those who campaign in favour of removal do so to reclaim the power once stripped of them, and to become more involved in properly contributing to the contemporary framing of history.

Seeing memorials for more than what they are, but what they represent, has been critical in my observation of these movements. My detachment from tangible evidences of the pasts initially prevented my understanding of these important resistance tactics. Whereas before I saw the efforts as symbolic, I am now interpreting the removal of historically insensitive memorials as preventive. The remembrance of racial violence and marginalisation through the memorialisations of its biggest perpetrators, is a forced trauma that must be prevented. Colonial and confederate memorials attempts to reinforce power dynamics that currently place people of colour at the nadir, also demands interception.

My approach to memorialisation can no longer be passive. Regardless of whether or not I find power in my trophies or medals, I understand that they were given to me out of distinction, to set me apart from my competitors. How I choose to attribute meaning to my awards is irrelevant if the intentions of these awards are predetermined. This can also be applied in the context of South Africa and America. If both nations truly intend to place equal power in the hands of all of its people regardless of race, sex, class, or gender, their memorials must include figures that are representative of this message and worthy of the honour. Their intentions must not only consider the equal dispersement of power, but accomplish it.