My greatest concern about the ongoing debate ignited by the Rhodes Must Fall movement has always been one of degree rather than kind. The removal of this particular statue as a self-contained event is fairly inconsequential to me, but the wider implications are not: where do we draw the line? Where does it stop?
This concern has been reinforced by the recent spread of vandalism to a range of other historical monuments and sites, including a Second World War memorial and a statue commemorating horses that served in the second South African War (a touching monument that I remember well from my childhood in Port Elizabeth). According to the EFF who took responsibility for this act of vandalism:
“The toppling of colonial statues is part of EFF’s signal, which indicates rejection of the economic system that has been imposed on us by foreigner settlers. [sic]”
But here is the problem. Colonialism, for better a worse, is a part of South Africa’s history. We cannot escape from it without tearing down our entire identity (and this goes not just for white people). It is very hard to find anything of historical significance that is not in some way related to the colonial past. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this impulse results in a Khmer Rouge style “year zero” approach to history and knowledge, tearing down or erasing any aspect of history no longer embraced by the ideological zeitgeist. It started with a statue of Cecil Rhodes, it now includes a memorial to those who died in the First and Second World Wars, presumably because many of the nations involved had offshore colonies at the time. Where to next?
The columnist Tom Eaton wrote some time ago about the notion of the Second World War as a “white man’s war” and repudiates it by identifying the comprehensive and terrifying plans the Nazis had for Africa. But there is something more; the notion of Africans as isolated non-participants in the wider world is infantilising. It perpetuates patriarchal attitudes towards Africans fostered in the time of men such as Rhodes – an attitude some seem happy to internalise. It is this twisted form of African isolationism that animates the architects of the Zimbabwean nightmare. Is that what the EFF and others are so determined to replicate? Robert Mugabe has got a tremendous amount of mileage out of blaming the ruinous effects of his tyranny on “colonialist” Britain and “The West”.
There is a terribly polarising element to all this from both sides, a separation of undesirable history from ideological narrative. I wrote previously about how this gives a potential free pass to our current corrupt leadership and allows them to lay the blame for their failures on the sins of the past, but what does it mean for our future leaders if we continue down this path? Politicians need to be held to account not given encouragement to shirk their duties by scape-goating their failures on historical events.
History is indeed written by the victors, but destroyed by vandals and re-written by tyrants.
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