The Rhodes debate: Rhodes statue has overstayed its welcome

2015-03-29 15:01

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Instead of reacting with contempt, we should hear the hurt, anger and frustration of UCT students and understand what lies behind it

pastBusts of former apartheid leaders, including HF Verwoerd, on display at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

During the 1994 election campaign, I was asked by the ANC to spend a few days canvassing in the Northern Cape. In one of the towns, my three colleagues from the provincial office and I stopped for tea at the house of the local ANC organiser.

When we were about to leave, the organiser presented me with a life-size white bust of Hendrik Verwoerd.

He explained he had made it as a tribute to the architect of apartheid on the day of his assassination in 1966. He wanted my two children to have this memento of their great-grandfather.

Too big for our boot, we left with the bust between my colleague and I on the car’s back seat.

There was a long, tense silence, but eventually my colleague exclaimed: “Comrade, I am sorry, but this is freaking me out. I can’t relax with Hendrik Verwoerd sitting here.”

Peace was only restored after I covered the bust with a scarf.

For the next few days, we were met with the surprised laughter of ANC members as we criss-crossed the Northern Cape: “Jinne, dis dan Oupa Hendrik met ’n doekie op sy kop! [Crikey, it’s Grandpa Hendrik with a scarf on his head!]”

A few months later, the newly elected Parliament quickly removed the enormous oil paintings of previous prime ministers.

The HF Verwoerd Building became 120 Plein Street and the enormous bust of Verwoerd was promptly moved to a storage facility. There was never any question that these symbols had to be removed.

We did not need to see Verwoerd every day to be reminded of apartheid and its horrors.

Even the Verwoerd family – in and outside Orania – accepted it. Their only request was to have the opportunity to move some of the statues to Orania.

At the same time, in my home town, the University of Stellenbosch started to remove apartheid names from its buildings – again without much drama. Other historically Afrikaans universities quickly followed suit.

READ: The Rhodes debate: Dead men walking

How ironic it is that only now, 21 years later, the historically far more liberal English universities are suddenly forced by the actions of one student to deal with their divisive symbols.

Of course, many Afrikaners also never had much love for the older colonial chaps. Despite my protests to the contrary, my grandmother maintained throughout her life that the English only contributed two positive things to the world: tea and hot-water bottles.

When my ex-husband was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, his father was furious that he accepted something associated with the “evil colonialist” Cecil John Rhodes. I suspect many will find their reactions ignorant and even offensive.

Yet the recent responses of many white Capetonians to the debate about Rhodes’ statue have not been much better.

After students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) demanded that the prominent likeness be taken down, radio stations and newspapers were filled with highly indignant middle class whites patronisingly telling black UCT students to learn some manners and be thankful they were at such an amazing institution.

“Where would this country have been were it not for the colonialists?” was frequently asked, without any apparent awareness of how deeply insulting the question was to black South Africans.

The most concerning aspect remains the lack of understanding by so many white Capetonians that this is not only about Rhodes or other colonial administrators, such as Alfred Milner. It is about a deep sense of alienation that many, if not most, black students still experience.

Of course, if you have always lived in a country and city that reflects your own history, the concept of not belonging might be hard to grasp.

In the late 1990s, I was the only white member of Parliament on a parliamentary trip to the US that was hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, an organisation representing black members of the US Congress. Some of those politicians, ignorant of the demographics of our new Parliament, patronised, ignored and even lectured me on the history of South Africa – similar to the patronising lectures given to the the students on colonial history this week.

Years later, as South African ambassador, I experienced a similar sense of disconnect when I looked at statues in Ireland. Despite knowing the history, I felt no resonance with monuments that survived the Irish Republican Army’s bombing campaigns. Both those experiences were deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant. How much worse must it be to continuously experience this in your own country?

Nothing is more dangerous for the future of South Africa than a growing sense of alienation and disconnect by the majority of young people.

Instead of reacting with contempt, we need to hear their hurt, anger and frustration and understand what is behind it. Then appropriate action needs to follow.

As in the case of Verwoerd, it is very difficult to see how there can be any convincing argument for the retention of these very divisive symbols.

Verwoerd is a former ANC member of Parliament and was SA’s ambassador to Ireland between 2001 and 2005

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