I haven't had much time of late but I thought I'd spend a bit of it tonight and see what comes out:
In South Africa every new day bombards you with reminders of the structural and deeply seated (racial) inequalities which seem to hang suspended in time. In the township of Gugulethu most streets have new names officially but the signs still talk about NY#, the native yards. Heerengracht Street in the CBD of Cape Town is bookended by statues of Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias and Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck. It’s not hard to end up at a restaurant where the diners are all white but the staff are all black.
When I was younger, my parents would lament how much effort was being put into the apparently pointless activity of changing street names from those of prominent apartheid era politicians to those associated with veterans of the struggle against those same politicians.
In retrospect I think they were wrong. I don’t think it’s much of stretch to say that symbols do matter. The challenge, I thought, was then to find a litmus test for whether something is a valuable part of our shared heritage or not.
This led me to thinking about national identity, nation building or whatever you want to call it. My understanding is that in 1994 there was trepidation (amongst everyone) at what the new dispensation would bring but simultaneously a feeling that an opportunity bloomed to start afresh and start the ball rolling on transforming society to be more equal.
Unfortunately it seems that this hasn’t really happened. The new government largely slid into the comfort of incumbency and proceeded to adopt a “don’t rock the boat” mentality on big questions such as land, nationalisation, distribution of resources etc.
I’ll talk at some other stage more about those specific issues but the bottom line is that the dream of a phoenix-like transformation didn’t materialise. And so we continue to have two societies in one country, pretending to have a single normative idea of what the shared portion of our history comprises. Here I mean shared in the sense of everyone identifying with it.
Naturally then this is shown to be a pretence at times.
Outside the Castle of Good Hope was probably one of the few places where you could still see the old SA flag, in this case flying alongside the other historical flags. Until all except the current flag were removed in 2012 after the issue was raised in parliament.
In Joburg the starkest of contrast stands between a road named originally for one of the architects of apartheid and now for Solomon Mahlangu, an MK guerrilla who was hanged for politically motivated murder in the 70’s.
A more personal example is the case of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. The university’s land was donated by this mining magnate and noted British Imperialist.
It shouldn’t be surprising that he left a conflicting legacy. Some feel he contributed to the development of the country by his involvement in industry, rail etc. Others are inclined to see him as the face of colonial dispossession (cf. Bechuanaland and the British South Africa Company) and one of the progenitors of race-based exclusionary policy (during his time as at the Cape legislature he pushed for the scrapping of the Cape Qualified Franchise, which had historically allowed a significant number of non-whites to vote).
Even among whites there has traditionally been a split, with many Afrikaners seeing him as representative of and responsible for British aggression against the Boer republics.
Personally, I reject the idea that we should only apply the lens of the past when considering his relevance. Merely saying that he was “a man of the times” and therefore still deserving of some kind of praise neglects the very real and meaningful effect that this has today. In many ways I think symbolic things such as his statue hurt far more when they still represent the open wounds in our society. In addition to being contextualised in terms of their historical significance, we should also consider the current symbolism.
For many, Rhodes’ statue represented a prominent and continued display of colonial dominance in an untransformed society, at a university which in fact considers itself a bastion of liberalism and openness in the country.
So the removal of the statue is in itself a symbol of UCT’s jagged and uncertain path to defining itself as an African university. Some unknown artist took the liberty of painting the shadow of the statue back after it was removed, which I think is quite poignant.
The university is currently undergoing an audit of all artworks and statues etc. as part of a more concerted way forward. The question of which of these will be deemed OK and which not is of course, contentious. Do we take into account what the artist intended or should current perceptions be allowed to trump this? What if perceptions vary?
I think in this space there's much to be said for the value of open discussion. I've found incredible value in listening to others explaining their perspective. This requires, however, a commitment to such dialogue which may start to become less attractive the longer we let things fester.