Supra Mahumapelo, the Premier of South Africa’s North West province and staunch ally of President Jacob Zuma, is the man leading the way. He wants to build a statue on the remote spot where police arrested Zuma on his way to Botswana with uMkhonto weSizwe recruits, the armed wing of the ANC, in 1963. It would stand in the dusty rural town of Zeerust, in the north of the country. Zuma spent 10 years on Robben Island, after the run-in with police on this spot, but protesters don’t seem to care.
“We are disappointed the Premier wants to erect a statue, he’s spending more time in planning what he is going to do with the statue, rather than spending time dealing with corruption. We will call upon Barutsi people in Zeerust not to allow a statue on their soil. The statue of Jacob Zuma will go nowhere to solve their critical need for services, as water supply fails daily, waste water treatment plants lie unusable and broken, and the inhumane bucket system still plagues our people. We need service [delivery] rather than statues. We are saying the Premier must reconsider this and listen to the plight of the people. Mahumapelo’s priorities are clearly disturbingly skewed to praise Jacob Zuma, rather than to deliver to the people,” says Joe McGluwa, the provincial leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
McGluwa says the Premier is acting as a law unto himself by planning to honor Zuma – who has been in power since 2009 and has 783 pending criminal charges.
“He spoke about celebrating the lives of all those who were in the struggle. President Zuma is still alive and there’s no need to erect a statue for him. Even worse, he has been linked to a number of corrupt activities. The president of this country, better known as JZ 783, doesn’t deserve a statue, he’s a broken president, he broke the law, he broke the constitution, he acted in contrast of his own oath. The honorable thing is to retreat from what they are doing.”
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), another opposition party in the province, acknowledged Zuma’s role in the liberation struggle, but they are also against the statue.
“Zuma is not exemplary and has multiple cases of fraud. Why must we honor him, why must we celebrate him? He’s broken his oath of office, he must leave that office for an honorable man to occupy,” says Betty Kedisaletse Diale, the EFF provincial leader.
“We will make sure that the statue is swiftly removed. It will not be erected while we are members of the legislature. We will fight it until the end,” she says.
The DA claims it has done its own cost analysis and demands the North West province reveals how much this statue will cost. The DA says there’s a tender out for R6 million ($457,000), but Mahumapelo denies this.
“Where the opposition gets their exaggerated figures, I don’t know. We said six meters, not six million rand. We can’t spend that money. It will be wasteful expenditure. The decision was taken in 2009, it was before my time. I have the responsibility to implement. We are going to honor the families who helped liberation fighters. We want to talk to those who are still alive to have audio and visual records of this historic event,” Mahumapelo told journalists minutes after his state of the province address in Taung.
Mahumapelo says it concerns him when people say they don’t want the statue because they want services.
“There must be a win-win situation. People must have water, but we cannot run away from the fact that in South Africa there were freedom fighters. We cannot erase the history of people who experienced torture. Other countries are honoring their leaders. Why shouldn’t we?” he asks.
Mahumapelo, who calls himself Supranomics, said the statue will create more jobs in tourism.
In Ventersdorp, 150 kilometers from Zeerust, stands another controversy. A six-meter statue of struggle hero JB Marks cost R4 million ($305,000) and left his family irate. They say the North West government did not consult them.
JB Marks left South Africa in 1963 for Russia to lobby the international community to support the struggle against apartheid. He died in exile in 1972, and his body was repatriated and reburied in his hometown of Ventersdorp, on March 22, 2015. The statue was to be unveiled on the same date this year.
So statues appear destined to divide. In the North West province alone there are two statues, two issues, and two groups of angry people.