Warren Foster
Warren Foster

On divisive symbols in the new South Africa

It seems that every other week we are confronted with the reality of an ever changing nation. Summer rolls around, housing developments go up, presidents change, ministers and premiers shuffle around. “We live in exciting times” is a refrain I’ve heard often over the course of the past two months.

And every so often, in an attempt to redress the past, we change the iconography of our nation. A street here, an airport there, a municipality everywhere. It’s good and I’ve always felt there were symbols that needed changing.

A friend once asked for my opinion on the street name change debacle in Cape Town, specifically when it came to streets named for apartheid leaders such as Verwoerd, Malan and Strijdom.

“I’m all for it, they all must change,” I said with gusto.

“Must?” she asked amused. “Absolutely?”

I felt a little sheepish at my impassioned response and thought about it more carefully. “Well, it depends on what you see a street name as … I’m not saying we should try to erase or forget our past but if the names are there to honour these people they should be changed.”

And that’s the rub of it, really. What would count as a tribute? Many argue that street names are just words to them now, words without connotation. In the same breathe, however, those same people have told of traversing Nelson Mandela Bridge with a sense of wonder evoked mostly by the spirit of the man the road is named for. I would argue that road names are tributes whether you appreciate their significance today or not. I recently went out to Stellenbosch University and, upon entering the lobby of their athletics facility, was confronted by a bust of the grotesque DF Malan — a tribute in an Afrikaans university to the white supremacist who implemented apartheid. My blood boiled even as I told myself that the university was free to honour the tortoise-faced lout if they saw fit to do so. Not far from where I live, resides DF Malan High School, yet another memorial to the moron.

The new flag has, for the most part, been accepted and adored by the population. The old one still flies occasionally and when I see it, I cringe. The true test, however, of the new South African is their ability to tolerate symbols which they abhor.

The icon of Cecil John Rhodes recently came under fire in Cape Town with three of his statues around the city defaced on Heritage Day. The statue at UCT read on the base, in black graffiti: “Fuck your dream of empire”. The matter of this particular name also recently fell onto the agenda of my alma mater, Rhodes University. I’m not clear on the details but from what I hear the university’s SASCO has suggested that the name of the university be changed.

Now, I like the idea of being able to say that I was a Rhodes Scholar as much as the next person but the arguments for retaining the name have to be stronger than that. From the chatter I’ve picked up from the other alumni among my friends, the arguments range from pathetic: “Oh my word, so like what? They’re like going to change it to some other name nobody can pronounce?” to redundant: “It’s always been Rhodes University and that’s all it is, just the name of the university.”

People need to understand that CJ Rhodes was an imperialist who believed the British should own the world and the thought of honouring his name is repulsive to many. I still don’t approve of his statue and memorial around the UCT area, yet I’ve always been unaffected by studying at Rhodes University. Dr. Saleem Badat, the first black Vice-Chancellor of the university recently apologised for Rhodes University’s seemingly willing complicity with the apartheid state, at least up until the 1980s. Still, this is the university attended by anti-apartheid activists Nan Cross and Margaret Legum. Apparently Mluleki George studied there as well. Nelson Mandela holds an honourary doctorate from Rhodes; I even sat in the same politics class with his grandson Mandla. Rhodes University, in any event, was not so much named for CJ Rhodes as it was named for the trusteeship (which was, admittedly, named for the man).

I wonder if those campaigning to have the university’s name changed would campaign for Mandela to take his name away from the Mandela-Rhodes scholarship/Foundation, which has done fantastic charitable work in the field of education and sent South African students to one of the best universities in the world in their hundreds. It’s the same principle at play after all.

And all this is to say is that a symbol can change, adapt … and become all the richer for it. Nothing is more true of the symbol of the Springbok. It had for the longest time been a divisive tool in this country; a symbol of white domination, an affront to blacks fighting for liberation. Again, I understand where the call for its scrapping comes from. But to argue for the change of the symbol calls for a careful look at whether it has managed to evolve, or not, over the years.

Two articles have emerged within the past week, which make a strong case for the springbok. As Mellet notes, there is an historic argument for the retention of the symbol; one which sees that the springbok once stood against apartheid. As Carlin notes, the springbok was a symbol deliberately reformed by Mandela in order to achieve unity. Long wondering how to get Afrikaners on board with the new South Africa, Mandela invited Francois Pienaar over for tea and roped the team into belching the new anthem at the top of their lungs. By the onset of the 1995 final, the predominantly white audience was chanting Madiba’s name.

Picture a white man wearing the springbok jersey. If that offends you, compare him to the image of a white man wearing the jersey but also brandishing the old flag. If you see a difference between the two images, if one evokes a stronger reaction than the other, you see the difference between the springbok of today and the springbok of old. When one considers what Carlin is saying in his article, about how Mandela saw the symbol as an opportunity for unity, and so deliberately donned the uniform in 1995, it’s clear that the springbok became a symbol of, if nothing else, a nation looking to embrace change. To call it divisive is to undermine the transformation we’ve undergone, to subvert the spirit of reconciliation that once defined the ANC and to, dare I say it, be ultimately counter revolutionary.

Let’s look and see if the elements and icons we seek to change have evolved and “come around to the new way of thinking” so to speak, before we go about shunning them. That’s only fair. In fact, it’s no less than what we afford our fellow human beings who have gone through the transformation into the new South Africa with us.