Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan: We can't start rewriting history

An Auckland statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Should his legacy be forgotten because of recent claims of racism from more than 100 years ago? Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
An Auckland statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Should his legacy be forgotten because of recent claims of racism from more than 100 years ago? Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

Imagine no statues in Parliament's grounds. No names of historical figures plastered on the sides of buildings. No streets named after bygone Kiwis.

That's the future, if we want to erase the past. There are calls to change Massey University's name because of the views of its namesake.

William Massey was Prime Minister of New Zealand for a whopping 13 years between 1912 and 1925. He was hard on unions, skilled at politics and one of only a few prime ministers to die in office.

The debate over the university's name has been sparked by Steven Elers - a lecturer at said university - uncovering some of Massey's quotes.

The statements include: "Nature intended New Zealand to be a white man's country, and it must be kept as such" and "I am not a lover or admirer of the Chinese race. I should be one of the very first to insist on very drastic legislation to prevent them coming here in any numbers, and I am glad such is not the case."

As repugnant as those views are, the university's name shouldn't be changed.

We're judging Massey by today's standards. He was a man of his time.

If we erase William Massey from the country's history, where do we stop?

Do we take Sir Apirana Ngata off our $50 notes because he didn't like Maori women getting too close to Chinese men in the market gardens back in the 1920s?

Do we change the name of our capital city because its namesake conducted extramarital affairs for years?

Do we stop celebrating Nelson Mandela's achievements in ending apartheid in South Africa because his first wife Evelyn claims he assaulted her? He denied her claims.

Look at South Africa if you want an example of how far the wiping of the history books will go. A few years ago Cape Town university students started a movement called Rhodes Must Fall.

They took issue with Cecil Rhodes, calling him the Hitler of South Africa. They threw faeces at his statue on the grounds of Cape Town University. Eventually, authorities relented and removed the statue.

Given its success, the movement spread to other universities in the country. Then it spread to other historical figures.

Campaigners now want to remove statues of Mahatma Gandhi.

Yes, it's hard to believe, but the man of peaceful protest apparently didn't like black Africans. A book written last year claims he used the derogatory term kaffir and made a speech in 1896 saying they wanted nothing more in life than "indolence and nakedness".

So, all of Gandhi's efforts in leading India to independence must be ignored because he was a flawed man.

Removing the statues and names and pictures of these people won't remove their sins.

The timeline of history is not a social media feed where we can delete ugly old photos of ourselves and forget we ever did that to our hair. It says a lot about us that we've only uncovered Massey's racist slurs 90 years after his death.

Was he so representative of the population that no one even cared to record his outrageous statements, or would we rather pretend that we never had a prime minister who sounded so much like a member of the KKK?

Accepting that Massey used racist slurs means accepting that most white New Zealanders at that time did, too. It sits uncomfortably.

But that's why the university's name should be left as is. We should know about the man the university is named for, and what our country was really like back when he led it.

And Massey should remind us to measure our own views by the future, lest they look back in 90 years and want to remove our names from buildings.

- NZ Herald

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Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan is a thirty-something trying very hard to avoid growing up. So far it’s working, except for the husband, the mortgage and the proper job. She lives between Auckland and Wellington. When she’s not writing for the Herald on Sunday, she co-hosts TV3’s 7pm current affairs programme Story.

Read more by Heather du Plessis-Allan

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