A controversial approval: Governor says Zulu memorial must also honour British troops

Of the 25 Zulu leaders who were imprisoned at St Helena from 1907 to 1910, 7 died on that island. There are no graves to show. More than a century later, in 2020, when the island was about to erect a memorial, then the unexpected happened . . . I was among those who responded ukukhuza umhlola! Published in The Sentinel – 11 June 2020...

The eagerly anticipated decision of the Executive Council on 2 June 2020 granted permission for the installation of the Zulu Remembrance Monument at the Jacob’s Ladder Viewing Platform. It has been long coming; the proposal was made in 2009, and through the years the unceasing voices of Mr Cyril (Ferdie) Gunnell and Mrs Barbara B. George have kept all reminded about it. The Executive Council’s decision has heralded that the time has come for the island to do the right thing, retrieve part of its mysteriously disappeared history of the seven Zulu prisoners whose moments of perish vanished with the past generations.

Through the years the proposal was about the Zulu prisoners, but then according to the last week’s decision the monument must include “all who died in the period related to the Zulu conflict period”. Apparently, it was also specified that the monument’s plaque “must also honour British troops.” Will the installation continue being referred to as the Zulu Remembrance Monument or that will also change? How will the British troops and Zulu prisoners co-exist on the same monument? One group will be of members of regiments and garrisons with their majors, colonels and lieutenants dripping with credentials and decorations. The other group will comprise the likes of Hlangakeza the Zulu prisoner who died on Feb. 22, 1908; whose surname is not even known because it was deemed unimportant to have his personal identity fully recorded. Adding historical context to all that, what will that monument of schizophrenic identity be perpetuating?

Mrs George has repeatedly told of “a moving and solemn ceremony” performed in 2009, whereby each of the 13 members of the Zulu delegation placed a stone and formed a small cairn at the top of Ladder Hill. The proposed monument is supposed to replace that cairn of stones. Should in future Zulu people arrive on this island and wish to communicate with their ancestors and heroes at that level, how will that happen in the midst of the British garrison that will also be on the same monument, watching over them just as it did in the past? Would that be a show of empathy and conciliatory gesture?

The Zulu prisoners who died here are held in high regard by their people. Ntelezi Msani who was the last to die on 1 Nov. 1910, just 28 days before the group was pardoned and returned to Natal, was from the area in the south of Durban called Umzumbe. In that area today stands a Ntelezi Msani Monument, the Ntelezi Msani Heritage Centre, and an annual commemoration and festival is held in his name. On a yearly basis those people take time to grieve that Ntelezi was treated with such disdain that he was not even afforded the basic human respect of burial if St Helena cannot point where his bones lie. In the first instance those Zulu prisoners were pardoned, but what is more important is that history exonerated them. Today they are nothing near to what they were on this island; but here we are, more than a century later, St Helena is on a mission to eternalise them as prisoners of the British troops.

Downtown St Helena Island, Feb. 2016. View from Main Street to the seafront.

From the Open Agenda No: 36/2020 and the Executive Council Top Lines of Tuesday 2 June, the proposed monument is about some broad topic of the island’s historic past (read: ticking off some checklist), under the guise of being named the Zulu Remembrance Monument (read: lip service), and all that done for tourists (read: economic purposes). These are secondary objectives and on their own are inappropriate for the erection of a monument, especially so in the context of the Zulu prisoners and St Helena. A monument starts with the intangible aspect from which emerges the concrete form; because monuments are not just architectural pieces but symbols and receptacles that represent and contain something. What that ‘something’ is for this proposed monument will be gauged by the message it will convey, and the feelings and reflection it will evoke to a passer-by, be it islander or tourist, over time and across different cultures.

Through this proposed monument, beyond the Zulu prisoners St Helena will also be making a long overdue statement about the island’s stance on its African heritage and connections. How the Zulu prisoners who died are treated, will tell the world what Africans are on this island. To clarify, let us look at Napoleon and the Boer prisoners of war.

St Helena’s stance on Napoleon is well-known and unambiguous, he is French but the island’s undisputed most famous resident. The island’s instant rapport with the Boer prisoners of war is widely documented; it was Governor Robert Armitage Sterndale’s proclamation that greeted them when they landed on 10 April 1900. The governor was pleading with the islanders to treat them well, for they were a people fighting bravely for “what they considered the cause of their country”. That spirit has prevailed up to today. The eye-catching manicured Cemetery of the Boer Prisoners of War at Knollcombes is one of the island’s leading tourists’ attractions; and yes, I do know that the South African government contributed but that does not absolve this island from being able to point at the spot, no matter how overgrown, where Ntelezi’s bones lie. While the Boer prisoners were afforded the dignity of military funerals; it is very tempting for one to believe that possibly the Zulu prisoners were never buried but dumped down some gorge.

See! There is no ambiguity about the intangible aspect this island holds in relation to Napoleon and the Boers. Can the same be said about this island’s stance on its African connections? The proposed Zulu Remembrance Monument is right now the most powerful weapon available to decisively redeem and redress this situation. This is not the time to drop the ball, the stage is set, St Helena must rise to the occasion.

The full article, including the views of the experts who responded to this matter, is available in The Sentinel (St Helena) of 11 June 2020, pages 8 – 9. Read and also listen.

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