South Africa has been consumed with statues in recent weeks. Statues have become a symbol of all the racial conflict bubbling beneath the surface of the “rainbow nation”. All at once, we agree that we need to talk about race and the colonial and apartheid history but at the same time we are afraid that the removal of statues will erase history. And no one wants to erase history. When I initially followed the #RhodesMustFall debate it seemed to me that black students were hiding behind the statue of Rhodes and addressing the issue of transformation as an issue that can’t exist without the symbol of Rhodes.
As a result of using the statue to address inequality at UCT, too many narratives have been conflated in the debate and the conversation is degenerating into something the UCT students could not have anticipated. The debate is now focused on the physical statues that many people (especially black and white; the two groups that seem to matter most when it comes to race) are not entirely sure if they should remain or be removed (though the EFF would have us believe that all black people are aggrieved by the statues of Paul Kruger and Louis Botha). When I initially pointed out my concerns about the focus on the statues, friends told me I’m missing the point: the debates happening at UCT are not simply about the statue. The statue was simply a gateway to addressing the real problem of an untransformed institution. However, I disagree. Now that we are consumed by the statues, the colonial and apartheid history is foregrounded and the current racial experiences are backgrounded. More importantly, the future of South Africa is also swallowed up by the hype of “erasing history”. The unintended consequence of using the statues as a symbol is that the statues themselves have hijacked the real conversation.
Let’s pretend that Chumani Maxwele didn’t throw faeces on the statue a few weeks ago? Would UCT have been confronted by angry students who feel excluded at UCT? Would ordinary South Africans have confessed that they are offended by Louis Botha and Queen Victoria guarding Parliament alongside Nelson Mandela’s bust and Walter and Albertina Sisulu? Would students at Rhodes University re-ignited the conversation of the name-change? Would black South Africans have been honest that racism and inequality are a daily experiences that is often sacrificed in the name of the “rainbow nation”?
Focusing on symbols and statues has weakened the conversation. It seems to me that black people still need to reference symbols of apartheid and colonialism in order to legitimise their current experiences. We (black people who agree that racism exists) don’t need physical symbols to legitimise current experiences of racism. My fear is that, we remove these symbols we are squabbling over only to find that racism remains to be a feature in our society.
I think when South Africans are not frothing at the mouth trying to be right, we will all agree that the removal of statutes is not intricately linked to whether or not history will be erased. That is a separate issue that needs to be removed from the debate. The events we are witnessing right now will be recorded in history and depending on the fate of the physical statues, museums exist for the reason of preserving history in different ways. What black people refuse to agree upon is that whether or not we remove the symbols our racial experiences will remain. And so the question remains, what will it take for racism and the denial of the experiences of poor people to be eradicated? The truth is, removing any statue might not be the silver bullet we are looking for. In fact, we have seen that it is not even be the end of addressing the issue of racism because it can easily be derailed by other voices that want to deny that racism is real in the “rainbow nation”.