The removal of a statue of Mohandas Gandhi from the campus of Accra’s University of Ghana reminded me of the one time I agreed with Donald Trump. It happened after white right-wing activists congregated in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, demanding, among other things, that statues of Confederate heroes be preserved and protected. The statues, honouring generals and politicians who fought to preserve slavery in the 1860s, had for the most part been erected during a period of racial segregation in the southern United States between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A few had been commissioned as a reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

While I deplored both the people honoured and the motivation behind honouring them, I agreed with Trump’s contention, made at a testy news conference in New York, that removing Confederate statues would lead to demands to take down memorials to Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who had, after all, been slave owners. The liberal press derided Trump’s slippery slope argument, but soon afterwards protestors shrouded a Jefferson statue on the University of Virginia campus, accusing him of having been a racist and a rapist. There have since been petitions to remove Jefferson statues from the University of Missouri and New York’s Hofstra University, where a representation of the third president of the United States was vandalised. A church in Virginia removed memorial plaques to both George Washington and Robert E Lee in the months following the Charlottesville disturbances, as if the two leaders were equally controversial.

The slope has got similarly slippery in South Africa, where a movement demanding that memorials to the imperialist businessman Cecil Rhodes be taken down was followed by similar petitions regarding Gandhi statues. If Rhodes Must Fall, it appears Gandhi Must Fall as well, no matter the moral chasm separating the two immigrants who made their name in South Africa. A statue in Johannesburg, unusual in its depiction of a young Gandhi rather than the more familiar wizened sage, was vandalised in 2015. The statue stands in a square named for the Mahatma in the city’s central business district not far from his erstwhile legal offices, but despite his close historical ties to the location, voices asking for the plaza to be renamed are getting louder.

The charge against Gandhi is that his South African writings were prejudiced against the natives. This was true when he was a callow youth just out of law school, but the charge of racism cannot be laid at anything he did or said in his later years, when he embraced the idea of African decolonisation. Sadly, it is as if the movement of time, development of character, and historical context have ceased to matter. Like apps on a smartphone, events in each individual’s life appear side by side on a flat screen. One questionable choice, or a few sentences judged to demean a group, is seen to corrupt the entire life.

A statue depicting a young Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa, was vandalised in 2015. Photo credit: Reuters
A statue depicting a young Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa, was vandalised in 2015. Photo credit: Reuters

Era of adikography

There have been times when famous personalities were forgiven everything. Accounts of their lives would read like hagiographies, or tales of saints. We are now in an age dominated by the opposite of hagiography, marked by an obsessive search for acts to be condemned and words to be censured. Let’s call this kind of search adikography, from the Greek word “adikos”, used for someone unjust, unrighteous, or deceitful. Adikography is every bit as untrue to its subject as hagiography, and in the age of adikography no icon is safe from dismantlement.

Is there an alternative approach to the issue? What ought to be done about memorials to those who held despicable views, given that there is no objective separation between them and inevitably flawed individuals who made positive contributions to history? I believe statues, being works of art, function differently from symbols like flags. Removing Confederate flags is justified for they have a singular meaning, while statues can be viewed in a historical context. Instead of praising the subjects of such statues, we can interpret against the grain, asking, “What kind of society thought it fit to build a memorial to a man like this?” Occasionally, a statue at a prominent location can be replaced by one of a modern hero, but by and large it seems more sensible to me to keep statues in their place and recontextualise them, just as it makes sense to retain derogatory terms in the literature of the past rather than expurgate the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As for Gandhi, he didn’t want statues to be made of him, and it was a bad idea for the Indian government to gift one to Ghana, a land with which he had no historical connection. I find nothing to celebrate in the government’s use of the Mahatma as a projection of the nation’s soft power. If a statue had to be installed in Accra, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been a better subject. His friendship with Kwame Nkrumah and support for African anti-colonial movements might be remembered and appreciated there. Of course, that was never going to happen considering India is currently ruled by the leader of the Nehru Must Fall movement.