What’s in a country’s statues? Global economy writer shows us

Map and flag of North Korea

While there’s a popular discourse around China’s influence in Africa, few realise what sway North Korea holds on the continent, as this seemingly architectural tour of ornate buildings and statues reveals. The larger ones, especially the 161-foot African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal, are reminiscent of Nazi Germany, where a triumphant muscled hero entwined with his lissome wife and perfect children reach for a distant horizon where the master race will finally create nirvana. Economist Barry Wood, who began his career at the Financial Mail in Johannesburg, now writes about global economic issues from Washington. This is an example of his subtly powerful pen as he takes us on a walking tour, mostly of southern African countries. With admirable detachment, he simply describes the iconic statues that so imposingly reveal the political ideology of the governments who commissioned the Korean artistry in the most visible geographical locations possible. He unpacks the politics that led to the construction of Namibia’s massive Independence Memorial Museum, giving a fascinating insight into that country’s historical relationship with their benefactor – and North Korea’s larger ambitions. You have to ask how this economically misplaced empathy with an autocracy run by a secretive family cult and condemned by the UN, uplifts Africa’s people. How is putting an African face on statues built by North Korea’s State-controlled artistic academy any less ‘çolonialist’ than having Cecil John Rhodes’ effigy dominate a university campus? Surely both are inappropriate? – Chris Bateman

By Barry D. Wood*

WINDHOEK, Namibia: The North Korean-built Independence Memorial Museum hovers above Namibia’s tidy capital from the intersection of Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro streets. In front is the imposing bronze statue of Namibia’s liberation hero and first president Sam Nujoma. He holds the nation’s constitution in his upraised hand.

Pic: Jbdodanem

Dedicated in 2014 the five-story museum – dubbed the coffee pot by locals – took five years to build and joins other North Korean built structures that include State House, the president’s home sprawling over 50 acres outside the city, Namibia’s military headquarters, and a munitions factory. Namibia says it severed commercial relations with North Korea last year but a United Nations panel concluded it was violating the economic sanctions that were tightened in 2016. North Koreans continue to work on the renovation of State House. Western diplomats suggest North Korea wants access to Namibian minerals – including uranium – for its nuclear and missile programs.

The Nujoma statue dwarfs the imperial German equestrian monument it replaced. That century-old statue was a Windhoek landmark until it was moved in 2010 to make way for the museum. Commemorating soldiers who died for “Kaiser and Empire” during the 19th century colonial scramble for Africa, the Reiterdenkmal became controversial after Namibia’s independence in 1990. Today it languishes in the courtyard of the decaying German fortress nearby, propped up by metal rods.

Pic: Barry Wood

Bigger than Texas, Namibia is a desert land with only two million inhabitants. After Mongolia it is the world’s least densely populated country. Rich in natural beauty, big game and minerals, Namibia is a popular destination for ecology tourists.

Nujoma, longtime leader of Swapo, the Southwest Africa Peoples Organization, ruled Namibia from 1990 to 2005 and then retired. Now 87, Nujoma invited the North Koreans into Namibia, payback perhaps for Pyongyang’s support of Swapo’s guerrilla war against South Africa, which displaced Germany as colonial power after the First World War.

Propaganda mural, Independence Museum.

The Nujoma statue is one of several North Korean socialist realism sculptures in Southern Africa. They were cast by North Korea’s secretive Mansudae Art Studio, which employs 4,000 people in Pyongyang. In 2005 pro-Western Botswana unveiled a Mansudae statuary of three tribal chiefs who in the 1890s traveled to London to successfully plead for British protection from Cecil Rhodes British South Africa Company.

In 2011 Mozambique dedicated a massive 30-foot-high statue of its first president Samora Machel whose Frelimo guerrillas in 1975 were handed state power by Portugal, where a military coup the previous year overthrew a long-ruling dictatorial regime. The Machel statue is adjacent to city hall where the likeness of a 19th century Portuguese governor once stood. Critics complain that the statue doesn’t’ really look like Machel.

In neighboring Zimbabwe two large Mansudae statues of Robert Mugabe are said to be in storage, ready to be dedicated upon the demise of that country’s 93-year-old president.

The most controversial of the North Korean statues is in Dakar, Senegal. Unveiled in 2010 the African Renaissance Monument is huge, 161 feet high. The massive sculpture had to be redone prior to completion because Senegal’s then president said the faces didn’t look suitably African.

Grant Parker, an African studies specialist and professor at Stanford University, is critical of oversized North Korean sculptures. They convey, he says, a power relationship between the viewer and the larger than life statue. North Korea, he says, is the last country specializing in these broad-chested, triumphalist men that are no longer popular in either China or Russia.

  • Barry D. Wood writes about economic issues from Washington. He began journalism at the Financial Mail in Johannesburg.