If you do not like something, throw poop at it.
This was the thinking of some protestors who called for the removal of the Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town campus citing that the continued presence of the statue was an ode to the white dominance of the past. The calls for the removal of the statue were based on the fact that as Africans the seeming continued celebration of this past was one that cannot be allowed to continue.
Despite the wildly unhygienic nature of the protest it can be argued that sometimes you need a shit-storm to gauge the true nature of the socio-political climate.
There are some who denounce the Rhodes statue debate as being “window dressing”, a shallow interaction with a larger, deeper structural issue. This could quite easily be the case if the fickle nature of students facing essay deadlines and scores of readings comes into play, but the statue debate has allowed for something tangible to grasp onto in the debate surrounding history, race and remembering.
To what extent is it a continued engagement with the past in a productive way and to what extent is it simply a subtle re-traumatisation of some and the celebration of others?
As a continent whose history is steeped in racial wrongs we are no strangers to trying to wipe out the past in the name of embracing the future. De-colonisation was met with a sweep of name changes, new statues and new road names all in the spirit of moving forward. We even went as far as making sure our particular brand of dubious rule was separated from the colonialists by coining the term “neo-colonialism”, as we had moved on to a new phase.
Everything was new.
Despite the fact that everything changed it did not change the fact that the memory of what happened remained. To sit with people who were alive during the years of the struggle for independence is to know that those scars still linger even though the master and the memorials are gone. There was no need for scores of statues to remind those who had been there that colonisation had happened.
The same is probably even more acute within South Africa.
There is no need to keep the relics of the past all around as the entire country is one huge relic of the past. One needs only walk the streets of Cape Town to get that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia for the time of segregation. It may not be state imposed but it is so deeply entrenched it does not need political might anymore. Being the only black person in a space is a very real and constant occurrence.
Especially if you love a good wooded chardonnay.
This apartheid toddler can now stand, all on its own with no help from mommy and daddy state.
With the majority of the wealth still held by the minority (Kenny Kunene and Cyril Ramaphosa do not represent the “average” black South African) few living and social areas being truly integrated and state-sanctioned violence still concentrated within the black communities very little has changed in terms the past.
So what is it we are trying to hard not to forget?
“Let us remember what happened so we do not go there again.” But we live there, every day.
To insist that the history must be kept alive through statues is to pretend that it is not being kept alive through the everyday workings of society. To insist on this past preservation is to deny a very real present.
However you do not need a scar to remember that you once had a nasty incident. I do not need a black eye to remind me you once hit me in the face. And if you need me to have that black eye to remember to not hit me in the face again, we have a deeper problem.
Arguments, especially coming from brown people, that statues such those of Cecil John Rhodes should be left as they stand because they are part of the spirit of forgiveness and healing are problematic and worrying. It is again, the victims, who are told to “settle down” because all is better now and all these do is remind of a past we do not want.
But the time for settling down may, unfortunately, be over. All settling down has gotten subjugated people around the world is Ferguson, Marikana, the short end of the trade stick, becoming developing countries, the global south, conflict as western countries destabilise for resources and people-chatting mess on Twitter about “Africa, Ebola, Aids, starvation and crime”.
To paraphrase Audre Lorde, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house has not helped us at all.
History is important to preserve, there are however ways of doing it in a manner that does not continue to loom over those who it did the worst to. To have a statue sitting there supposedly looking into the heart of Africa (already a deeply sinister thought) does not speak to a purposeful preservation of history. It simply speaks to the ability for this history to continue, unhindered into our present and normalise itself in the name of “moving forward”.
Perhaps the best way forward would be to curate some of the memorials in a safe educational space in which a true contextual history can be given for those who seek it rather than a tacit acceptance that must loom over everyone as we try to rush between tutorials. Where one can engage with the idea of Rhodes “the benefactor” and Rhodes “the tyrant”.
Tearing down of the statue is not going to obliterate structural racism in one swoop. We will not suddenly see an Afrikaans man jump into the open arms of his Zulu employee. Suddenly everyone will not all rush to the same drinking spots. There will not even suddenly be an influx of black people at the University of Cape Town. But what will happen is that people will begin to understand more and more that there is something going on that cannot be ignored in the name of a “post racial/post-apartheid” world.
The structures of segregation are still alive, nationally, regionally and globally. Preserving the memory of them as if they are gone is a means by which we pretend that they do not still function in our every day. Sometimes it takes the shit to hit the fan to realise we may have to clean house.