The Past Is Not Perfect And We Should Not Expect It To Be

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our relationship to the past. History was one of the subjects I studied at University, so the past has always been of great interest to me. I also know that the past is not one and the same for everyone. History can be broken down into so many different areas and people from different countries, regions, economic, religious and political backgrounds etc. will each have unique stories to tell about the same period of history. There is no overarching grand narrative. History is more complex than that.

Which is why I am concerned by the political tendency nowadays to oversimplify the past and take a very negative view of it as racist, sexist and oppressive. Just to name a few examples: there is the recent Rhodes Must Fall movement which tried to topple statues of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and Oxford University. (They were successful at UCT, but not at Oxford.) The British writer Afua Hirsch wrote a very controversial article last year in The Guardian calling for the removal of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. The reason: Nelson did not voice opposition to slavery whilst he was alive. There have also been attacks on 90s sitcoms such as Friends because some of the characters made un-PC jokes. A pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse was taken down in February from a gallery in Manchester because it “sexualised” women. Read More…

Rhodes Must Fall Wants To Hide From History Rather Than Confront It

rhodes must fall oxford

A few years ago whilst on a trip to Okinawa, I visited the island’s World War Two memorial, where the graves of the fallen overlook the tranquil clear blue of the Pacific Ocean.

Though mainland Japan was subject to heavy Allied aerial bombing campaigns during the war, Okinawa was the only geographic location in Japan, which saw ground warfare.

The Battle of Okinawa was a viciously fought conflict in which over 200 000 people were killed. 62% of these were civilian casualties.

The memorial is also home to haunting art and video installations, which unreservedly tell the bloody tale of that battle and its high human cost.

There was none of the triumphalism that one encounters in British and American accounts of WW2. I saw that war, truly, for the first time, from the perspective of the defeated. And all the sadness and shame that accompanied it. Read More…

Charleston: Symbols and Fell Deeds

charleston confederate flag

Like many of you I woke up on the 18th of June to news of the horrific events in Charleston. What was so shocking about the killings was not just the brutal and callous nature of the acts themselves, something about them seemed remote and surreal, like a revival of atrocities past, which no doubt was what the murderer intended. It reminded me of studying the civil rights movement in my teenage years: lynchings, assassinations and savage beatings. The strangeness was compounded when I saw a photo of Dylan Roof wearing what is, for me and other South Africans, both a distant but familiar symbol: the oranje, wit en blou of the old Apartheid-era flag. I quipped at the time that a deranged American racist associating himself with white South Africans is the ultimate “umm…he’s not with us” moment, but even that gives his conceit too much credit: the notion of that flag having any resonance for the identity of most white South Africans.

An interesting debate has since emerged about the meaning, implications and display of symbols. Unlike the old Confederate flag, of which this lunatic was also apparently quite fond, the old South African flag does not enjoy widespread acceptability in polite society. By and large the only places you will see it displayed are in history museums or among a minority of militant nationalists like the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or Afrikaner Resistance Movement) who, despite occasional disproportionate coverage in the foreign (particularly British) media are, in terms of proportionality, the equivalent of mountain survivalist cults in the USA. The significance of symbols is a hot topic here in South Africa following the Rhodes Must Fall debacle in which a group of students lobbied successfully for the removal of a statue of the erstwhile Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, from the University Campus. Despite the seemingly ever-expanding remit of this movement to anything even marginally associated with the colonial era (including, at one point, a World War  memorial and a monument to fallen war horses in my home town of Port Elizabeth) no effort has been necessary to remove that flag from the public square.

As I am not an American, I cannot fully engage with the equivalent debate around the continuing use of the Confederate flag, both among individuals and as part of the state flag of Mississippi, as well as the continuing presence of statues to Confederate generals and other figures from the time. At best I can say it does seem more complicated than Southerners’ attachment to the symbol being a simple expression of their inherent racism in every case. The American Civil war divided a nation, pitted state against state and the confederates were not only fighting for their right to keep slaves (though it would be naïve to suggest that was not a primary political and economic motivator). I can understand how descendants of men who fought on the Confederate side might object to being made to feel ashamed of their ancestor’s part in it, given the complex historical context and provincial loyalties that run through the history of that war.

But where the otherwise culturally significant debate starts to go off-track, is when the actions of a clearly disturbed young man, so horribly bizarre as to appear to have come out of a time-warp, are blamed on the systematic and characteristic racism of an entire vast and diverse nation, or even an entire civilisation. I have seen arguments emerging recently suggesting the fact that Roof has largely been considered a “lone wolf” is indicative of the free pass Western society gives white racist murderers and the society that gives rise to them, a courtesy allegedly not extended to radical Islamist cults (though whoever made that claim clearly did not follow the groundswell of dithering and equivocation that followed the terrorist attacks in France and Scandinavia).

One of the more absurd expressions of this I have seen so far was an article in The Guardian by Lindy West condemning America as a racist society but focusing primarily on a gaff by the clothing retailer Zara. She goes as far as to condemn a T-shirt bearing the slogan “white is the new black” – it should be obvious to anyone even marginally familiar with fashion tropes that anyone decrying this as symptomatic of deeply ingrained racism is actively seeking offence and division. While America is emerging from a racially divisive century, much like South Africa, and still dealing with the consequences of that, to issue a blanket condemnation of the entire society as inherently racist is simply inflammatory rhetoric.

But here is the crux: whether or not this murderer was suffering from a mental illness or was otherwise disturbed (I take leave to doubt he was of entirely sound mind, but that does not excuse his actions) he was a hateful reactionary in the truest sense. Reactionaries crave a return to an imagined glorious past, often pinning the blame for its demise on a particular group. This is the mind-set of neo-Nazis, Islamists or, in South Africa, the AWB. America, like South Africa, is still emerging from its past, but what the ideology of these fanatics does not accurately mirror, is the world as it is now. To claim that actions such as these are reflective of or intrinsic to an entire modern civilisation is to grant them far too much credibility. It is the progress we have made that enrages reactionaries and that is what they wish to reverse.

Featured Image Credit: “The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler”. Source

The Rainbow Nation Myth

the rainbow nation myth

I have always been optimistic about the future of South Africa (sometimes boldly, sometimes more cautiously) and this optimism has consistently been buoyed by my admiration for my fellow South Africans. We are a resilient bunch, to say the least; we have been through the historical ringer over the last 200 years and the changes wrought in my own lifetime have been incredible to witness. As a young country we have also not yet lost that patriotic fervour which is often replaced with cynicism in more established first world countries, made all the more precious by the fact that we can celebrate it under one flag regardless of our colour or community. Particularly, I have been impressed by the younger generation; their openness, their ambitions for our country and their colour-blindness has given me great hope for the future. The last few weeks, however, have been the first time in a while that my faith has been, while certainly not derailed, shaken. This spirit of nationhood to which I refer is part and parcel of the Rainbow Nation concept, which, has of late, increasingly been denigrated by a vocal minority as a myth or, worse, a ruse of the white establishment to keep people of colour in bondage.

The ongoing statue debates have been increasingly framed in explicitly racial terms and I feel unwelcome, as a white person, to comment on it. The whole idea, contextualised within a form of black consciousness, has become racially exclusivist by definition. I have heard a number of statements amounting to, “this is not about you, stay out of it.”

I respectfully decline the kind offer to keep my mouth shut while I am accused of being a participant in a grand racial conspiracy, even though it may earn me a few of the tautological cultural slurs and accusations of white supremacist motivations that are becoming so familiar in this debate.

Even white people sympathetic to the goals of the movement have their intentions questioned – the concept of the “white liberal” has come in for a great deal of criticism from the movement of late. SRC President, Ramabina Mahapa, in a statement saturated with racially divisive rhetoric (but containing little to nothing in the way of practical solutions to addressing the ongoing challenges we face in South Africa) said of white liberals that “subconsciously they share the same set of values and desire to protect their privileges” or worse “Whites have not even begun to see blacks as equals and as being capable of thinking for themselves”. If someone accuses me of not seeing black people as equals, all I can really say in my defence is “actually that’s not true” which, if my motives are in question by virtue (or in this case, inherent villainy) of my skin colour, can simply be dismissed as the deviousness to be expected from a member of the intrinsically untrustworthy white community. This is just another example of unfalsifiable racial rhetoric that silences even the most well-meaning sentiments of the white community and breeds suspicion and hatred.

As a white person I acknowledge that there is a lot of work still to be done, that the economic injustices of Apartheid do not simply go away overnight. I have no desire to live in a heavily-armed laager or a fortress walled by hedges of bitter almond as the first settlers once did. I am a human being first and a South African second and I may be white but I am and always will be an African, and no amount of unpleasant cultural invective about “whiteness” is going to change that. I decline to be told that I am a foreigner in my own country.

It is very positive to see young people in this country rallying behind a cause but disheartening to see it descend into racial identity politics – a self-evidently sinister road to go down. Aside from the unpleasant Zanu PF-esque connotations, it misses so much of the big picture. It is unsurprising to see this movement emerging from the campus of a university. Having spent four years on a university campus myself I know all too well how living in a world of theory can separate people from real-world cause and effect. I have heard next to nothing in the way of real practical ideas to address the problems of our country but plenty of vague post-structuralist theoretical clutter about consciousness-raising and symbolism, and a blame game attributing every problem in this country today to structures of white supremacy, from government corruption to the recent xenophobic violence in KwaMashu and Umlazi, following King Goodwill Zwelithini’s statement that foreigners must “pack their bags and go home”.

The Rainbow Nation is not a “myth” and it would be foolish in the extreme to throw away a jewel richer than all our crown. The idea of the Rainbow Nation as an end point after which everything will be easy, the rolling credits at the end of Invictus – that is the myth. In reality it is a guiding principle to keep us united as we struggle to make this country as great as it can be and the work is never done. This is the call for eternal vigilance echoed in Nelson Mandela’s choice of autobiography title – that “Long Walk” is far from over but we will trip and stumble unless we can walk it together.


Featured Image Credit: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Source: Wiki Art

Rhodes Must Fall: Where Does It End?

rhodes must fall

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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Must Rhodes Fall? How Should I Know? I’m Just Another White Guy

Rhodes Must Fall

I have really tried to stay out of the debate around whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the former Prime minister of the Cape Colony, famous for expanding British imperial interests in the region, should be removed from the campus of Cape Town University. There are a number of reasons for this and the debate has also, in my view, deteriorated somewhat. But, if I am truly honest with myself, there is another reason I have stayed out of it: I don’t feel, as a white South African, welcome to comment on it unless I happen to agree that the statue should be removed.

The highly racialized language being employed by those in favour of the statue’s removal is at least contextually understandable given South Africa’s history and the fact that achieving true equality between communities remains an ongoing project. That being said I get the sense that it is becoming more and more inflammatory in order to rhetorically bludgeon people into agreement.

Observing the debates raging on social media, I would expect one of the following responses if I expressed a view that the statue should remain:

  • “You approve of the actions of Cecil Rhodes and are therefore a racist by association.”
  • “You can’t understand the legacy of pain that still inflicts people of colour because you are white.”
  • “You are just afraid of losing your white privilege.”
  • “You just want black people to ‘get over it.’”

The problem with these points is that they are firstly unfalsifiable, and, secondly, instantly stimulate the fear of being thought prejudiced, that most liberal white people live with (whether or not they admit it). It also creates a kind of exclusivity whereby if you disagree you are outside the circle, unable to understand the motivations and concerns of the movement because of your own racial background (however if you agree you are quite welcome to join the fold).

One of the most recent high profile white figures to comment on the debate in favour of the statue remaining where it is, was radio personality, Gareth Cliff, who took the attitude that it is a misplaced priority to remove historical monuments because of their historical connotations:

“How are we to claim the Pyramids, The Acropolis, The Forum, the Great Wall of China, and Great Zimbabwe as part of our human story if we pretend they weren’t built by the sweat of slaves and the grinding oppression of the slave-owners? To hide the statues and spare a generation three times removed from the event is to do those sufferers an injustice. If a statue hurts you that much, you’re giving too much power to the statue.”

The response of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement was to dismiss him as “another privileged white guy commenting on the Rhodes statue” – I suppose that is going to be the category I now fall into.

I have some sympathy with the difficulty the “Rhodes Must Fall” supporters have with arguments that state something to the effect of “there are bigger problems to address”. Yes of course there are, but students do have a say in what symbols are represented on their campus. I don’t doubt the good intentions of many people who are appalled by Rhodes’ colonial legacy, but in the intervening weeks the movement has taken on a rather unattractive tinge of opportunistic drum-banging.


Also ReadIt’s Easier To Fight Dead White Guys Than To Challenge Real Power


There are also some double standards at play here. Every time I look at a debate on social media around the subject, somebody raises a comparison to Hitler (yes Godwin’s Law has reached Sub-Saharan Africa) to the effect of “You wouldn’t be saying this about a statue of Hitler in Germany would you?” Possibly not, but what does anyone have to say about the images of King Shaka and the fact that the airport in KwaZulu Natal is named after him? This example has come up a lot and my initial instinctive reaction was, “well that’s different” but the more I thought about it the more I had trouble seeing how.

For those of you not familiar with South African history, Shaka was the founder of the great Zulu kingdom, military genius, brutal tyrant and the architect of the Mfecane (the Scattering) in which less powerful tribes across the region were slaughtered, displaced and forced from their land by Shaka and his Ndebele counterpart, Mzilikazi. In South African culture, Shaka is an accepted part of our historical tapestry for better or worse and he is sometimes seen as a something of a symbol of African empowerment, perhaps because he was a successful imperialist who happened not to be white. Although Shaka’s people ultimately fought against mine, I consider him part of my heritage alongside them, such does history shape our identity, and would want neither his image removed nor the name of his airport changed. Of course, one could make the argument that I might not feel the same if he had prevailed over my ancestors, though prevail he did (and worse) over the many other tribes living in Southern Africa at the time.

I can pontificate on why the whole debate, on both sides, makes me uncomfortable, be it my natural disinclination to defend imperialism, or my dislike of some of the more vitriolic and bandwagon-jumping elements within the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. But these are really satellite issues. I suppose, at bottom, as a student of history, I just find something ugly and destructive in the urge to tear down artefacts, especially those that, for better or worse, represent our history, and, therefore, how we got to where we are now. The Afrikaners had as much reason to hate Cecil Rhodes as anyone after the horrors inflicted upon them during the Boer War – the conflict in which the British invented concentration camps to deal with the problem of Boer civilians and adopted the now-infamous “Scorched Earth” strategy. The Apartheid’s Afrikaner nationalists were well-known for their animosity towards the British (and to some extent, English-speaking South Africans), but they left the statue right where it was.

I managed to resist the urge to write anything about this until I saw the movement expanding elsewhere with vandalism of other historical statues such as those depicting King George V, Jan Smuts, and two war memorials. Thus there is now a question of degree: where do we draw the line? When does the destruction of symbols become the erasure of history?

The misplaced priorities point, in this regard, applies not just to how resources could be better deployed to more serious problems (an argument which, again, I agree is somewhat limited) but to the potential free pass we are giving our leaders. Without wishing to stray too far down an Orwellian tangent, in the novel Animal Farm, the former Farmer and the exiled pig Snowball are blamed for everything to distract the other animals from the problems of the present and those responsible for them. It has shades of President Zuma’s absurd attribution of South Africa’s ongoing problems to Jan van Riebeek’s arrival in the Cape or the spectre of the Apartheid legacy, which can be summoned at any politically expedient moment.

In an article defending the removal of the statue, journalist Eusebius McKaiser refers to the practice of “mythmaking” in South Africa and how it is inherently dangerous to take refuge in our myths about the Rainbow Nation because it fails to address the core issues. While I have difficulty disagreeing with him on this point, I worry that this movement is just another form of mythmaking which may prove a gift to our corrupt leaders, a source of conflict and distraction.

I may be wrong and I hope I am. But what do I know? I’m just another white guy.

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