I don’t want to tap into the anger, the misunderstanding and the adolescent reasoning anymore. I don’t want to be caught up in the wildfire of people who are wilfully ignorant about our past, and I don’t want to jump on some bandwagon either.
1. This is not about a statue
This isn’t just about a statue — we need to stop pretending it is. Yes, I’m looking at you News24 commenters. Let’s stop pretending the core issue is whether a statue should look down at us every day or not (funnily enough, most of us never even get to set eyes on these statues anyway!). The statue is a physical, tangible target in a massive crisis facing South Africa — whether people can live lives that they value, or not.
Get a grip South Africa: Rhodes is not the issue! The movement surrounding statues is not to be underestimated, because it represents the great trek South Africa needs to undertake to instil dignity for all. Incidentally, this trek is undermined by the polarisation along racial lines and the ways in which racial nationalists have tried to make this issue about them.
2. This should not be about racial nationalism, violence or polarisation
Yes, this issue is about transformation, and the inclusion of black voices. But we should not let the people who want nothing to do with the other side (white and black racists alike) take the lead. There’s a great opportunity for South Africa to discuss our shared contexts and identities, to forge a new path together, and learn to be conscious and accepting.
But this journey is not about the four white right-wingers who sing on the side (Steve et al). They can protest in Pretoria, and they can seize the opportunity to pretend they have a sustainable, viable movement in South Africa. We can let them make this about them; or we can tell them to climb off the bandwagon.
In a similar vein, where black people — like Assata Shakur — think that they can use this process to advance violence, instead of dialogue and change, we should show them the door too. Many will be taken by the poetic, revolutionary language of Shakur and her ilk. And some will shut down any dissent by saying “check your privilege” (Jacques Rousseau has asked whether we could perhaps see this as the privilege of avoiding arguments). This kind of stilted, antidemocratic engagement — by way of silencing dissent or pursuing violence — won’t assist in transforming our universities (something I have argued for, here).
3. History cannot be erased
Many people who have an opinion on this debate (and it seems everyone does!) have put forward the idea that history will be erased by the removal (and/or alteration) of the statues (and their prominence). This argument lacks contextual integrity. People need not look up at the boots of a bronze man to remember the past, nor do they need to see monumental memorialisation of the past to understand it.
Without being too glib: It’s 2015. We are inundated with information all the time. There is an ever-present stream of information in our daily consciousness; and unlike any other time in our history, we have been provided with an increasing number of opportunities to know, learn and think. This is the context within which we live.
We cannot erase the past, because it is always present. It affects the way we live, and think and dream. Its effects will go on, even after the statues are gone (or stay standing). However, we can choose to forget our past. We forget our history when we memorialise certain parts of our history, at the expense of others. Perhaps that’s what happens when we honour a man of history without reflecting on the parts of his past that make us uncomfortable?
There’s a great opportunity for togetherness in spite of the division caused by this debate — it comes from appreciating the good of democratic and equal debate. But it also comes from recognising that South Africa needs to be a country where all feel that they can live a life of value, respect and dignity.
I don’t know anyone who’d disagree with that.