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If you want to build a prosperous and peaceful country, especially in a post-conflict and diverse society like South Africa, it is essential to strive for unity and reconciliation. The constitution of South Africa encourages all South Africans, irrespective of race or creed, to strive for mutual respect, social cohesion and reconciliation. This includes respect for each other’s identity, our diversity and our heritage. The Preamble of our Constitution states:

We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore … adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to 

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; … and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

Heritage resources and the cultural landscape are important as it can be used to promote social cohesion, reconciliation and nation building, or it can be used to further divide and polarise citizens. All heritage resources are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act and the best manner to safeguard and preserve the context, integrity, and authenticity of all heritage resources is through in situ conservation and management.

The preamble of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) no. 25 of 1999 states:

This legislation aims to promote good management of the national estate, and to enable and encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations. Our heritage is unique and precious and cannot be renewed. It helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing shape our national character.

Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others …

With the extensive media coverage of the President Steyn statue at the main campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) and the recent removal of the statue, it is necessary to look at who M.T. Steyn was, and why his statue was erected in such a prominent place on campus, in front of the Main building.

The statue of President Steyn in front of the main building of the UFS.

Marthinus Theunis Steyn was born in 1857 on the farm Rietfontein near Winburg in the then republic of the Orange Free State (OFS). After completing his school education at Bloemfontein’s Grey College, he qualified as a lawyer. In 1889 he was appointed as State Attorney of the OFS. Four years later he became the first judge of the Free State High Court. In 1896 Steyn was elected as President of the OFS and was the only president born in the Free State.

When the British Empire tried to extend its rule over the adjacent independent Boer republic of the Transvaal (the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek or ZAR), Steyn mediated the situation until the very end to avoid war between Britain and the ZAR. Despite his best efforts, the Anglo Boer War broke out in 1899 and President Steyn decided to aid his sister republic against British Imperialism and colonial domination.

President M.T. Steyn before the Anglo Boer War

While the OFS was under British occupation (since March 1900), Steyn ran his government from the battlefield, playing a key role in continuing Boer resistance and the coordination of guerilla warfare that characterised the Boer war efforts from 1900 onwards. M.T. Steyn had fought gallantly for freedom from colonial oppression, but his constant exertions in the field severely damaged his health. Suffering from myasthenia gravis and lameness, Steyn went to Europe for treatment after the end of the war in June 1902. Although his health was not fully restored and still partially paralysed, he returned to South Africa in the autumn of 1904 and during 1908-1909 he was vice-president of the National Convention, the constitutional convention which resulted in the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910. 


President Steyn, a sick and broken man after the Anglo Boer War

Steyn also played a very important role in promoting higher education for the youth of the Orange Free State. During his inauguration speech in 1896, President Steyn stated that his vision for the city of Bloemfontein was a university where youth from all over the country could come and study. Typical of the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of the late 19th century, this meant that only white students would be allowed to study at the envisioned university. Because the principle of mother tongue education was very important to Steyn, his ideal was for a university where Afrikaners would have the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue, Afrikaans. This ideal of Steyn was interrupted by the Anglo Boer War, but after the war the University College of the Orange Free State was established as an institution of higher learning in 1904. In honour of Steyn’s diligent efforts in this regard, the Afrikaner Studentebond collected funds to erect a statue of Steyn at the University of the Free State (UFS), as it is currently known. As a symbol of the important role Steyn played in the establishment of the university, the statue was erected in front of the main building of the institution and unveiled in 1929.

The Anglo Boer War and the great loss in women and children in the British concentration camps was a driving force behind the establishment of the Oranje Girls School in 1907 in Bloemfontein, also initiated by Steyn. Furthermore, the National Women’s Monument, the first monument in the world dedicated to women and children, was unveiled in 1913 and was initiated by the ideals of Steyn and the family’s friend, Emily Hobhouse. Steyn died of a heart attack in 1916 at the relative young age of 58 and was buried at the foot of the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein.

The location or place where a statue or monument is erected, is very important. Because President Steyn embodies the ideal of the establishment of a Free State university, its original prominent location in front of the main building of the university is of the utmost importance. He is the father of a dream that was realised with the establishment of the university. The location where the statue stood is thus part of its identity and symbolic of the heritage he left behind.

As the values of society change over time, historical figures should be viewed in the context of their time. This is echoed by the words of the Director of the Anglo-Boer War Museum, Tokkie Pretorius, who said “Steyn’s statue had lost context in front of the UFS main building, and instead of people trying to understand the man who played an important role in the founding of the university, he became associated with racism and exclusion.” Steyn is often labeled as a colonist. This begs the question of whether a person who was born in South Africa, who fought against imperialism and colonialism, and whose ancestors have been living in the country for more than 300 years, can be regarded as a colonist. Another incorrect assumption is that Steyn was the founder of the National Party (NP). The NP was founded by General J.B.M. Hertzog in 1914. Steyn did support the NP, but died in 1916, only 2 years after the NP came into being.

Radical students campaigned for the removal of the Steyn statue from the UFS campus. Discussions around the repositioning and removal of the statue was discussed during a university assembly on 28 April, 2015. The UFS announced in November 2018 that the university’s board approved the relocation of the M.T. Steyn statue. UFS spokesperson Lacea Loader said the statue made the current student body “feel unwelcome”, as it “represents a period in history that they do not feel part of”. The president of the Student Representative Council (SRC), Katleho Lecho, said the statue reminded black students of a time where students of colour were excluded from the institution.

The planned removal, however, sparked widespread criticism. Heritage groups objected, and a number of UFS alumni remarked that they were permanently cutting ties with the university and will withdraw their financial support to the UFS. The civic organisation, AfriForum, and several other conservation institutions, including the Bloemfontein Cultural Association, the Christian Higher Education Association in Bloemfontein, and the Reformed Faith League have objected because they believed the statue should remain on the Kovsie campus.

The PHRA Appeals Committee ruled in August 2019 that the statue would remain at the UFS. However, Prof. Francis Petersen, rector and vice-chancellor of the UFS, commissioned a special task team to submit an urgent request to the provincial MEC of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture to appoint a tribunal to hear the university’s appeal. The tribunal upheld the appeal of the UFS, whereafter the Permit Committee of the Free State Provincial Heritage Resources Authority (FSPHRA) issued a permit to the university on 11 June 2020 to dismantle, store and relocate the statue to the War Museum in Bloemfontein. As stipulated in the permit, the university subsequently submitted a Conservation Management Plan to the committee for consideration, which was approved on the 17th of June.

The removal was welcomed by the SRC who said it was a move toward creating a more inclusive university. “The removal of the statue and symbol represents a victory for all UFS students as it didn’t represent the current dispensation, but instead reminded students of our oppressive past”, SRC president Lecho said.

Despite protests against the removal of the Steyn statue, it was finally removed from the UFS campus in June 2020. The dismantling of the Steyn statue took place on 27 June 2020. According to Prof. Petersen, when the statue was erected at the War Museum “Steyn’s contribution as an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist will be fully understood by all South Africans in the context of the South African War, as portrayed by the museum”.

Steyn statue removed from UFS campus                                             


Steyn statue dismantled

You can remove a statue, but you cannot change or erase the history and memory of a nation. Although some memories can be painful, history is not a record of uncontroversial events only – and neither should the heritage landscape be. The Heritage Impact Study that was commissioned by the UFS also includes the public participation process which made it clear that the majority of participants were in favour of the retention of the statue on the campus.

Prof. Petersen said in a statement: “We will now continue to transform the site in front of the main building into a symbolic, inclusive public space that promotes nation-building and social cohesion.” The question remains however, will the removal of the statue really promote nation-building, social cohesion, reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance, or will it aggravate racial tension, increase polarisation on the campus and further divide South Africans? What is tragic, is that the UFS is indeed trying to erase a part of its own history. This heritage matter is a watershed case regarding the status of monuments and statues across the country, as whatever happened in this case, will create a precedent and have a far-reaching influence on the heritage landscape of the entire country.

South Africans should give heed to the words of the Roman officer Marcellus to his Greek slave Demetrius:

I say damn all men who make war on monuments! The present may belong to the Roman Empire by force of conquest; but, by all the gods, the past does not! A nation is surely of contemptible and cowardly mind that goes to battle against another nation’s history! … There’s not much dignity left in a nation that has no respect for the words and works of geniuses who gave the world whatever wisdom and beauty it owns!’’ (LC Douglas, The Robe, 1942).


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De Villiers, J., EXPLAINER | Why UFS quietly removed a statue of president M.T. Steyn, (Accessed 17/08/2020).

Douglas, L.C., 1942. The Robe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Foster, G., Will M.T. Steyn statue stand or fall?, (Accessed 25/05/2019).

Grobler, R., University of Free State removes statue of Boer Republic president M.T. Steyn, (Accessed 17/08/2020).

Marthinus Theunis Steyn, (Accessed 21/05/2019).

Marthinus Theunis Steyn, 1972. Suid-Afrikaanse Biografiese Woordeboek II. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

National Heritage Resources Act, No. 25 of 1999, (Accessed 22/05/2019).

Roodt Architects, Heritage Impact Assessment: President M.T. Steyn Statue for the University of the Free State, (Accessed 13/05/2019).

Serekoane, M and F Petersen, As statues fall globally, the University of the Free State chose a different path, (Accessed 21/08/2020).

The Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996, (Accessed 24/05/2019).

Steyn statue removed from UFS campus, June 2020, (Accessed 14/08/2020).

Photo Postscripts and credits:

  1. The statue of President Steyn in front of the main building of the UFS. (Photo: Conrad Bornman, Gallo images, Volksblad)
  2. President M.T. Steyn before the Anglo Boer War (Photo: Free State Provincial Archives)
  3. President Steyn, a sick and broken man after the Anglo Boer War, at Bad Reichenhall, a spa resort in Bavaria, Germany, with Mrs Steyn (right) and Ms Hannie Richter (middle), 1903. (Photo: National Museum)
  4. Steyn statue removed from UFS campus, June 2020,
  5. Steyn statue dismantled,

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