Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What about bad heritage?

Picture: Art Harris - Fort Wynyard 2003

There is an interesting piece in today's Cape Times newspaper on the intended actions of Polish mayor Maria Kurowska, who is mayor of a town called Jaslo, in rural south-eastern Poland. Apparently, an oak tree is obstructing progress towards building a traffic circle in a particular area. When plans were submitted to the authorities, it was discovered that the tree had been planted during the Second World War, to mark Adolf Hitler's birthday. "So," said the mayor, "should I try to improve our town's communications, or should I allow a memorial to that criminal to remain standing? The choice is simple!"

Naturally, not everyone agrees. A certain man by the name of Kazimierz Polak, who was at the planting ceremony 67 years ago, said that his father told him that the seedling was brought from Braunau am Inn (in Austria) where Hitler was born. "It's an historic curiosity. What is the oak guilty of? It's not the tree's fault that it was planted here to honour the biggest criminal and enemy of Poland."

Now, to my mind, they both make pretty reasonable points. And I did a bit of mental shifting to place the same thing in our South African context. I have to say that I have been a bit surprised by the reticence and even restraint there has been in relation to dealing with Apartheid, Afrikaner and Colonial history in our country. I bet there are still Hendrick Verwoerd and DF Malan streets all over the place, even though the main ones in the big cities have given way to kinder personalities. The Voortrekker Monument still stands proudly on a hill overlooking the city which is still called Pretoria.

I went to visit, the other day, Fort Wynyard, which is literally within the shadow of the new Greenpoint Stadium, which is being built for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. It was one of the fortifications which has protected Table Bay for a very long time, and whose existence has meant that the Bay itself was never invaded. It is in terrible condition. There are rusted guns lying all over the place, but it is still there and there are intelligent discussions going on at the moment to ensure rehabilitation before 2010.

Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? One could certainly argue that paying for the rehabilitation (or at least preservation) of a fortification, as opposed to feeding babies, or housing people, is a bit difficult to justify. Why not just sell the land to developers (who would be falling over themselves to get at it) and use the money to build clinics and houses?

Well, because it is short sighted - that's why. While I am really not convinced that tourists would flock to see an oak tree planted in honour of Adolf Hitler, to cut it down does have the effect of depriving the town, or village (or country) of some of its heritage - bad as that heritage may be. And where does one stop? After you have cut down the oak tree, should they then get rid of Auschwitz? After we have sold off Fort Wynyard, why not turn the Castle of Good Hope into a boutique themed hotel?

There has been a lot of noise recently, about the changing of street names in Durban - which itself is named after a really evil colonialist, Benjamin d'Urban. There is even an advert on the radio saying that this street is now called that street and then (by strange inference), this car hire company is now called that car hire company. There have been people weeping and wailing in radio talk shows about how difficult it is for tourists to get around with outdated maps and how people who get lost and going to inevitably get led astray and mugged.

Personally, I have very little sympathy for this. I don't know the detail of Durban, but I was overjoyed when places like Pietermaritzburg changed its street names to those of people who are undoubted and unarguable icons of South Africa. (Sadly, it will be a very long time before Cape Town follows suit). But what do we keep? At the moment, we seem to be somewhere betwixt and between. A bit like our political settlement itself. But just as there are issues being raised at the moment, about the viability and the necessity of having the kind of peculiar hybrid anthem which we have, surely other issues of heritage must also be placed on the table for scrutiny and re-examination.

But when we do so, let us be clear. If we choose to make the traffic circle which requires that we cut down the tree, at the very least, we should name it Hitler Birthday Tree Planting traffic circle, or something like that - so that some of that history is retained and not lost forever in the wake of progress and development.

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