As we move towards the 42nd commemoration of the Soweto Uprisings the current youth of South Africa continue to question their colonial past and what it means to live within a democracy. In this piece, Zekulunge shares the thoughts of student leaders at the University of the Free State on the presence of colonial statues in their spaces.

At the centre of the University of Free State (UFS), in front of the main building stands a statue of former President Marthinus Steyn. Once again this has triggered a heated debate on the campus and a call from the Student Representative Council (SRC) that “Steyn must fall.”

Marthinus Theunis Steyn was a lawyer, statesman and a politician. He reigned as the last president of the independent Orange Free State from 1896 until 1902. He is also one of the co-founders of the National Party, an organisation that explicitly affirmed racial separation and white supremacy.

The UFS SRC president, Asive Dlanjwa said Steyn’s ideals are in conflict with the values of our democracy. “We are calling for the removal of the statue because he does not embody the values we hold as the university and the country, one of them being that of a non-racial society. Steyn served as a custodian of an organisation that represented the interests of white minorities,” he said. Dlanjwa also said the SRC was calling for the removal and not the destruction of the statue.

Representing the red berets, the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) chairperson, Khanya Ralarala said, “We as the EFFSC do not understand why 24 years into democracy apartheid heroes are still celebrated. We respect history but that statue only represents a minority and if we are honest about building a non-racial society we should not have people protecting Steyn because he does not represent what we are building”. Ralarala added that they strongly opposed the rector’s recommendation that the statue be removed from it’s current spot, in front of the main building, and placed elsewhere on campus.

Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) interim chairperson, Tshiamo Malatji said, “DASO UFS supports the transformation of the university in creation of an inclusive university environment for all students. As such, we support any decision that creates that university environment. These issues include safe student housing, campus safety and access to education. We hope that discourse on the statue will continue into areas of the university environment which need urgent attention”.

Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Francis Petersen, has appointed a special task team to review the position of the statue. This task team has asked for permission from the Free State Provincial Heritage Resources Authority (FSPHRA) for the statue to be fenced in, covered or used to create an exchange of information. On 17 April 2018, the committee indicated that the statue should still be visible, ‘uncovered’, and accessible. They granted the UFS a permit on 20 April 2018 to make the Steyn statue topical while the review process is underway.

The UFS has appointed a heritage consultant to conduct a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA). Once the university receives a report, it will be made public for at least 30 days. During this time, various opportunities for engagement will be created on all three campuses to afford the university community and other stakeholders an opportunity to engage with the report. After this, the special task team will hear the final report from the heritage consultant.

The specific dates and timelines of the public participation process will be shared when finalised.