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The problem with #RhodesMustFall

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”.







  1. Suntosh Pillay Suntosh Pillay 7 April 2015

    Useful counter-point Atha. I think some dissent is needed in the debate; and while I don’t entirely agree here, there is a danger of wannabe activists hijacking what I felt was a brilliant #RhodesMustFall campaign for their own agendas.
    I like your point that black people need to constantly reference apartheid symbols to talk about their experiences – which is highly problematic in itself!

  2. Sarel van der Walt Sarel van der Walt 8 April 2015

    In discussing this topic with a black colleague (who has a very similar education & class profile to me & is also mid 30s) I came to realise the underlying frustration & deep emotion that drives this debate. As a privileged White, I realised I will never be able to understand how Blacks continues to experience racism in SA.

    IMO, the statue debate is but a minor topic in a much broader, mostly Black/African process about transforming African identity and how to “overcome” 300+ years of European dominance in SA. But it is also linked to a much longer term process of changing Black African identity in the World to overcome 2000+ years of being considered inferior by nearly all other civilizations.

    IMHO, the approach to real transformation could be either pro-Black/African (ala Biko, Malcolm X, Luther King, etc.) or it could be anti-White (ala Mugabe, Sobukwe, Malema, etc.). The former requires long term dedication and hard work, while latter can deliver short term results but could be detrimental over the medium to long term.

    Many Whites, especially older and Afrikaner Whites see the debate as being anti-White, which is easily hi-jacked by populists when confronted with real developmental challenges. The populist actions of the EFF about damaging colonial/apartheid statues reinforces this view. They draw on historical examples where minorities were targeted when leaders were confronted with developmental challenges and deep rooted identity issues such as the anti-Jewish stance of Nazi Germany, anti-intellectual stance of Maoist China, anti-White (farmer) stance of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, anti-Christian actions of radical Muslims, etc.

    In the #RhodesMustFall debate, I’m opposed to the anti-White view. In the same vein, I’m supportive of the pro-Black/African view in the #RhodesMustFall debate, as are many younger Whites.

  3. Brakpanpolisie Brakpanpolisie 9 April 2015

    Good article and refreshing perspective to read for a change in this saga, interested whats going to happen next…hope it makes a tangible change

  4. Chris Allsobrook Chris Allsobrook 10 April 2015

    “To these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases and in no way combating the real existing world,” Marx writes in The German Ideology.

    Critique must not dismiss the illusory form but explain its empirical conditions.

    The conditions are obvious: inadequate broad socio-economic transformation.

    The causes less so: here there is an element of white scapegoating, where everyday consumer behaviour betrays deep complicity in ongoing economic subordination. Materialistic enchantment does not stop at statues. There is little sign that acquisitive idolatrous capitalist imperialism has fallen with Rhodes.

  5. Bobby Ebagum Bobby Ebagum 11 April 2015

    As a Canadian that visited South Africa earlier one thing that stood out to me was the racist policies of the current government. The BEE initiative and the exclusion of a race group regarding employment opportunities is racism pure and simple. My take on the issue of the statue is that this is a government sponsored smoke screen to divert the population’s attention away from the attention your president was attracting regarding the building of his palace.

  6. Rory Short Rory Short 17 April 2015

    Sarel I am in my mid-70’s but you speak my mind. I have always passionately wanted a country that valued and celebrated all its peoples. We operate on the basest of human emotions when all that we can do is use other people’s difference from ourselves as a justification for demeaning them.

  7. divvie divvie 18 April 2015

    contemporary exploitation and oppression???? I had the impression that Zuma and company were doing a lot of “exploitation” and oppression by way of BEE, etc .So the majority must be protected from the minority….

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