Rhodes is gone, where to now?

2015-04-13 06:00

This might sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a brief moment on Thursday evening that felt like midnight on April 26 1994. The Thursday-evening moment was the fall of the Cecil John Rhodes statue and the 1994 moment was the lowering of the old apartheid flag.

Those moments were very distinct in terms of scale and impact. The lowering of the apartheid flag marked the end of legislated evil and the beginning of democracy and freedom. It was also a singularly unifying moment, as many South Africans of all hues embraced the radiant new flag that was hoisted in place of the old flag.

The fall of the Rhodes statue happened at a very different time in the country – an angry and divided time.

The symbolism of the two moments was also different. In 1994, the sentiment among those who cheered the change of flags was one of “mission accomplished”. This week, the feeling was that 1994 was a mission that was definitely not accomplished. It showed how there was so much to do before we could claim real victories.

There’s been an unsettling feeling about this campaign because it has brought out the worst in us. From throwing faeces at Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to necklacing the war memorial in Uitenhage, the campaign has had an ugly feel. Coupled with the jeering at Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane – chairperson of the UCT council – to the renewed chanting of “one settler, one bullet”, there has been ugliness all round.

The campaign has also seen slimy reptiles come out to claim their five minutes of fame.

They included ultraracists such as Piet “Skiet” Rudolph, Sunette Bridges and the ever-disgusting Steve Hofmeyr. This week they donned apartheid-era military gear, waved apartheid flags, sang the apartheid anthem and shouted racist slogans. The re-emergence of those Neanderthals was an ominous sign of the mission being far from being accomplished.

Among those who gathered in Pretoria were chancers who love the limelight and unhinged and dangerous types with little between their ears. This campaign gave them a cause to fight and, being cowardly, they may do things to turn the innocent into victims.

But back to the actual campaign to remove offensive statues. It is overdue and should have been tackled by authorities much earlier in the democratic South Africa. Some of our statues celebrate really bad men who did terrible things – men who deserve no honour, least of all prominent memorials.

Had we not been so drunk on the juice of reconciliation, we would have dealt with this matter in an orderly fashion long ago.

Another thing the campaign has done is galvanise student activism. It has been refreshing to see students getting excited about things other than hip-hop, cheap beer and Lovers Plus condom packs. Throughout history, students have often been pioneers of societal change, inspiring adults to see injustice in their circumstances and do something about it. This movement – which some have correctly said is a vehicle for other issues – continues this tradition.

But the excitement about this activism should be tempered by a concern about the unleashing of forces we may not be able to control. The 1970s and 1980s youth-led uprisings spawned a generation with no regard for authority. While this was acceptable while apartheid was the enemy, the legitimate post-1994 order has found it difficult to put the culture of rebellion and defiance back in the bottle.

The Institute of Race Relations got it right when it warned about letting this culture set in, particularly at institutions of higher learning. In a statement highly critical of how the debate unfolded and the anti-Rhodes victory was scored, it condemned “intolerable hooliganism”.

“That it happened at, arguably, the leading university in our country is a terrible indictment of our country and of the quality of our future leaders. Are we headed to where a mob may one day march into the Constitutional Court to dance on the table of the chief justice, singing ‘one judge, one bullet’ and demand his court change a judgment?” asked the institute’s Frans Cronje.

And that is precisely the point. The disrespect of authority and institutions – already badly damaged by corruption and maladministration – is such that many citizens are increasingly feeling alienated from the state.

When you have a population that does not trust authority, you have an ungovernable citizenry. And once you valourise poo-throwing intolerance and the insulting of archbishops, you create an even more explosive environment.

Rhodes had to go. Paul Kruger will probably have to go too. Die Stem will mostly likely have to be excised from our national anthem too. But how we go about this will determine whether we have rule by mob or the genuine democracy we love to brag about.

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