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Tuesday, 08 May 2012 00:00

Remembering the fallen

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How we treat our memorials to fallen heroes determines how much we remember what was fought for. How we treat our memorials to fallen heroes determines how much we remember what was fought for. Image: Uwais Razack

Nic Botha: 2014 will mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, one of the most significant events in the 20th century. Post-war Europe would be forever changed by what was then called “The Great War”, with sweeping social, cultural and political changes.


Peace would, sadly, be short-lived, and the rise of Fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan would see another great war consume most of the world. South Africa, through its position in the British Empire, was inexorably drawn into the conflicts, with significant losses sustained.

The tradition of remembering and paying respect to the dead soldiers from these wars would be an annual feature. Today, no-one in Britain can miss the significance of wearing red poppies around Armistice Day. While these ceremonies do happen in South Africa, they are largely confined to the larger memorials, such as the cenotaph on Adderley Street.

UCT was no exception to the ritual of commemoration, with ceremonies held at the War Memorial on Upper Campus. Known to most students as “mem stone”, the Memorial occupies a central position on the main axis, along a well traversed route.

However, the current state of the Memorial, as a solemn remembrance to the sacrifice of so many South Africans, leaves much to be desired. Obscured by cars and often sporting posters and graffiti, the Memorial has become a casual gathering place for students, many of whom think nothing of sitting on the stone (and even enjoying a drink or two).

While the World Wars and their commemoration belong to a time in South Africa’s past that many would like to ignore or forget, we cannot allow this to happen. South Africans across all races fought in the wars, among them students of our university. To ignore those who died, or those combatants still living, would be a grave injustice.

As the centenary draws closer, living memories of the wars grow more distant. I think I might be one of the few students at UCT whose grandfather told them war stories, or who joined him along with his old regiment every year on November 11. I can understand, for many who have never had this experience, why it is possible to ignore the significance of the Memorial.

I feel that it is important for UCT to rehabilitate the area around the Memorial, so as to afford it the respect that it deserves, and to institute formal ceremonies for Armistice Day. As we celebrate our freedom on April 27, and pay respect to those who helped make it a reality, so too should we remember those who contributed to freedom on a more global scale. 

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