BLACK Lives Matter protesters in Bristol made global headlines when they toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and cast it dramatically into the harbour. Amid worldwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, campaigners in the UK have revived debates around our use of public spaces to memorialise historical figures involved in the slave trade and who held racist views.

In Scotland, the statue of notorious 18th-century politician Henry Dundas, who delayed efforts to abolish the slave trade, has not been pulled down – he is a bit more difficult to reach than Colston. But Edinburgh City Council, after years of delay, has finally agreed to install a plaque commemorating the half-a-million Africans enslaved as a result of his actions. There have also been renewed calls in Glasgow to change the names of streets which link to slavery and imperialism.

Statues and street names which honour slave owners are products of the 19th-century enthusiasm for using urban spaces to celebrate renowned public figures, usually wealthy elites. The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, which calls for Oxford University’s statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed, argues that statues “are a means through which communities express their values”.

This was true of the statues erected in the 19th century. But if we decide the values we wish to express have changed, our public spaces should also change to reflect that.

This process isn’t new. In the 1980s, anti-apartheid activists across Scotland campaigned for streets and buildings to be given names which expressed opposition to the racist white-minority regime in South Africa. Although monuments to slavers were not explicitly targeted, anti-apartheid campaigners understood the power of public spaces as forums for amplifying a message of solidarity with South Africans oppressed by apartheid.

In 1986, Glasgow District Council renamed St George’s Place in the city centre Nelson Mandela Place. As the site of the South African consulate, this was intended to send a direct message to the South African government from the city of Glasgow. The consulate was forced to open a PO box so that the name of South Africa’s most well-known liberation figure would not adorn their address.

Edinburgh District Council made its own statement of solidarity by commissioning a statue. Originally intended to honour “the South African Freedom Fighters”, this was later moderated to the somewhat less militant image of an anonymous South African woman and child with a plaque honouring “all those killed and imprisoned for taking a stand against apartheid”. The statue was put up in July 1986 in Festival Square, where it remains to this day.

A number of buildings across Scotland were renamed to express solidarity with the anti-apartheid cause, as well. Students’ unions took the lead on this, with Edinburgh University Students Association renaming the Potterow Student Centre to the Potterow Mandela Centre. Individual rooms were also used to reflect an anti-apartheid message – Edinburgh District Council decided in 1984 to name

a committee room the Nelson Mandela Room.

Like the campaigns we see today, these efforts were often met with opposition. Conservative councillors, many of whom regarded Mandela as a terrorist, regularly voted against these attempts to rename urban spaces or confer honours upon him.

Local businesses were less than enthusiastic about the renaming of Nelson Mandela Place and an event at Glasgow City Chambers to mark the change was protested by a small group that included two Conservative councillors. However, more than 200 people attended the renaming ceremony itself and

The Glasgow Herald commented that there was not “one dissenting voice in the crowd”, indicating a fair degree of popular approval.

This use of public space to express anti-apartheid values really mattered. Alongside the similarly symbolic act of granting Mandela freedom of the city, it instilled the values of anti-racism and international solidarity within urban fabrics dominated by the names of slave merchants. Mandela would later speak of what it meant to him that “a city 6000 miles away … declared us to be free”. His 1993 trip to the UK included a visit to Glasgow as an acknowledgment of the city’s role in opposing apartheid.

These anti-apartheid statements also served to emphasise the value of anti-racism at home. The Anti-Apartheid Movement was sometimes criticised for its unwillingness to campaign against domestic racism in the UK, but its efforts to instil anti-apartheid messages in public spaces provided an important mission statement against racial oppression.

Of course, racism cannot be fought by switching statues or changing street names alone, but doing so enshrines in our towns and cities the ideals we should aspire to live by.

In 2017, the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation was established by former members of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement to raise funds for a statue of Mandela in Glasgow. The foundation intends for the statue to “increase knowledge and understanding of the lessons of that struggle for continued active commitment to human rights, equality and racial harmony”.

A statue of Mandela would become a powerful symbol for these values, using public space to reflect the principles we want to see govern our society.

Public spaces belong to the people who use them and live among them today, not those of centuries ago. We should follow the example of Scotland’s anti-apartheid activists and use them to communicate the values that are important to us now.

Removing the haunting presence of slave traders is not an attempt to rewrite history. Monuments celebrating slavers are an important aspect of our history which we must acknowledge but their place is in museums and history books where they can be given proper context.

Even better, their historical role and legacy should be taught in schools. Meanwhile, our lived streets, buildings and statues ought to be used to represent our vision for the future.

Mathew Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in modern Scottish history. He has previously conducted research into the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement and his latest project looks at island politics in the postwar era