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.
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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