Here’s an inconsequential bit of South African literary history. The late poet Professor Stephen Watson used to have me over to his little house on Rouwkoop Road in Rondebosch just across the road from the railway line. This was in the mid-Eighties. With the occasional roar of a passing train in the background we often discussed poems, argued about aesthetics, drank heaps of wine and I learned a lot about writing poems and ways of travelling the world with a backpack from a poet who was then about 31 and I was about 22.
One night, after a particularly serious session with the superb grape of Stellenbosch and swapping favourite poems by Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, I lurched off to my humble student digs somewhere in Cape Town central. I didn’t make it home for some vague reason to do with missing a bus and being waylaid by a pub in Rondebosch (Pig ’n Whistle, anyone remember?). Deeply moved by an evening of reading poems by two great poets who survived the hellish oppression of Poland under Russia (and too much alcohol), I decided to take on colonial oppression on my own and trekked up to Rhodes memorial. It’s one helluva walk, especially after a night of drinking with a then relatively unknown poet (Watson) who in those days could certainly put the booze away.
En route to having a piss on Cecil’ s statue I developed the urge to defecate, no doubt brought on by the spectacular amount we had to drink. I considered Rhodes’ statue for my toilet but settled, when I got there, for squatting on one of the lions. My last minute decision no doubt had to do with the Eiger-like difficulty of mounting the equestrian Rhodes himself* — mind you, back in his day he would have loved a charming, muscular, blue-eyed lad of 22. It was a monumental shit, forgive the pun, with a spectacular view of Cape Town below. I slept for the night somewhere in the shrubbery. The next day these events, beginning with having dinner with Stephen, inspired me to start a narrative poem which two or so years later I showed to my supervisor JM Coetzee, who commented, in a letter back to me, “this is an impressive piece of work”, and then …
Am I digressing? No. Personal history blends with the deeper history of a country and its past and present symbols, making an intricate chimera of identity. Would I have considered pissing on a statue of Steve Biko? Absolutely not. But there is just something so tame about writing about going for a shit in the woods instead of on an icon.
The removal of Rhodes’ statue is deeply symbolic. However, his history is intertwined with all our histories, so my point here is this. Where does removing reminders of tyranny end? Our oppression is part of what shapes us. What hurts the rose tree is the pruning, and the hurting is what makes the rose bush even more lovely and shapely, resonant with the history of pruning and the art of gardening. So why not prune away the religion Rhodes’ empire-building and his cruel monarchy stood for — Christianity?
Christianity has an infamous record for oppressing entire peoples. The Catholic Church in the time of Machiavelli. The Spanish Inquisition. The slaughter of the Incas. According to Christopher Hitchens’ argument, Catholics played a sinister role with the German Nazi Party. Or take Jesus Christ himself: he lived in a time of slavery and never in the gospels does he speak up against it. In fact, when he refers to slavery (the parable in Luke 12:45-48), he does not use this opportunity, or others, to speak out against slavery. His sermons and actions never speak against slavery, which strongly suggests Jesus accepted it, and therefore was in favour of it. It follows then, and of course this is “absurd”, that if Rhodes, a colonialist devoted to spreading the British Empire (and the Christian religion of that empire) has to go, then surely other emblems of slavery have to go, like images for Christ, and that entire Western, “non-African” religion? That, of course, is not going to happen.
By removing Rhodes’ statue and other reminders of Rhodes, we remove some of our own history. I respect Louise Ferreira’s view when she argues there is a difference between “acknowledging historical facts and glorifying the oppressor”. But we know what Cecil Rhodes was all about. He is not being glorified. He is an important reminder of our oppressive past because history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Cecil John Rhodes’ name has been transmogrified; there is a long legacy of intellectuals and students at both UCT and Rhodes University who have stood against apartheid (including this student) who still identify with their alma maters.
Even the scholarship’s name has been changed to the Rhodes-Mandela scholarship. The scholarship name reminds us of both our terrible oppression and our great liberty, which — let’s face it — is not liberty for the vast majority of South Africans. Which brings me to my main concern. This hullabaloo about changing names and knocking down statues diverts attention away from the genuine problems South Africa faces. And that is the very real oppression, corruption and wholesale poverty along with poor service delivery (Eskom leading the pack) the incumbent president and his cronies are inflicting on the nation. Everyone is making heavy weather of one name while the nation seems to be slowly going to hell. Makes you wonder who really initiated this sideshow distraction of statue toppling, hey?
A note on symbols. They are extremely powerful, and often misunderstood and underrated in materialistic societies. Part of their power is that they too, like alchemy, can transform and be transformed. The suffering, crucified Christ is also the healing Christ, the wounded healer. Though I am not a Christian, the Christian faith, in its rich diversity, its history of both oppression and freedom, is part of our collective ancestry and culture and is impossible to erase. Keeping the likes of Rhodes around (go on, put up a statue of Steve Biko next to him) reminds us of past oppressions, and should be reminding us of the tyranny and despotism currently taking place in this beautiful, rugged nation, South Africa. As Milan Kundera famously observed, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Ironically enough, this uproar to have Rhodes erased from iconic memory is itself a disturbing act of forgetting of what is happening right now in South Africa.
* I realise the statue is not necessarily of him but is a tribute to his “restless drive and determination“.