Leaders are silent as statues

2015-03-29 15:00

Conspicuously absent from the heated debate about the removal of the statues honouring colonialists and apartheid’s great apostles is the country’s political leadership.

As South Africa has engaged in a divisive and potentially explosive debate, our governors have buried their heads in the sand. While we would like to give President Jacob Zuma and his lieutenants some benefit of the doubt and say they are preoccupied with more urgent matters, such as the energy crisis, we know this would be a tad generous.

It would also be too charitable to believe they are just watching the debate unfold and listening to the myriad views before making an intervention.

We know this is not true. They are just lacking the wisdom and backbone to take leadership on the subject. Such leadership need not be a pronouncement that offers a final solution, but should be an intervention that gives direction to a debate that is currently ruinous.

It would be an exaggeration to compare the statue uproar to the Tunisian uprising of 2012, but it is worth noting the unrest in Tunisia was sparked when a frustrated hawker set fire to himself because his patience with officialdom had run out. His actions struck a chord with his angry compatriots, who vented their anger at a government they believed did not care about them.

Similarly, the statues issue goes way beyond concrete public artworks. It speaks to the levels of frustration with the pace of transformation and the continued prevalence of racism in our society. Young student Chumani Maxwele, who threw excrement at the Cecil John Rhodes statue three weeks ago, became a hero to many who shared his sentiments about racism and the lack of transformation.

Overnight, he spawned a campaign that has developed its own momentum. It is an angry crusade President Zuma and Co ignore at the entire country’s peril.

In intervening, the leadership need not be populist. Dealing with the pain caused by the triumphant symbols of colonialism and apartheid will need careful but firm political management, so as not to further inflame passions.

At the end of the process, all South Africans must understand why those symbols do not reflect the country we want to be, but are rather a celebration of our architects of suffering.

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