The felling of Rhodes proves that destruction is easier than construction

2015-04-20 13:49

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I have resisted voicing my opinion on the issue of the statues of colonial and apartheid figures for some time because I believe that people more qualified and more informed than myself have said most of what can be said on it. But I believe that an additional personal perspective might add something useful to the discourse.

The current campaign against the statues of colonial and apartheid figures does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs in a specific sociopolitical context and it is a small part of communicating a bigger message by the youth. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall call those who campaign against the statues “students”. Before I address the merits and demerits of the campaign, a little background is in order to highlight the sociopolitical milieu in which the events take place.

One of the key characteristics of South Africa is that we are a denialist nation. We have not adequately acknowledged the damage that colonialism and apartheid caused to persons and communities of all race groups in this country.

One of the things that we frequently deny is the existence of racism in our country. We even pretend as if we are a fully developed nation in the true sense of the word. In his book, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience, Kwame Gyekye asserts that there are four stages or varieties in the development towards full nationhood.

“N1” is a homogenous ethnocultural group that shares common cultural values, practices, and institutions. The linguistic and cultural homogeneity that are characteristic of the community of an N1 nation enable members to share basic values, meanings, and social identity.

N2 is the variety of a nation that is formed by the grouping together of several N1 entities in a single territory. N2 is heterogenous – multi-ethnic and multicultural. The need for nation-building becomes apparent in the N2 variety of a nation in order to transfer the primary allegiances of members of the disparate N1 entities from their ethnocultural communities to the common nation-state.

N3 is similar in composition to N2, with the important difference that, in N3, there is a greater degree of social cohesion with a concomitant reduction of specific ethnocultural particularism among individual members of the various ethnocultural groups.

N4 represents a metanational state in which individuals form the building blocks of the nation and owe their allegiance to the state and not to their original ethnocultural group identities (Gyekye).

It is my contention that South Africa is largely an N2 nation in Gyekye’s nomenclature.

The second important characteristic of South Africa is that we chose a negotiated settlement to bring about our current political dispensation. This choice carried with it a particular strategic intent with regards to how we proposed to develop as a nation.

What complicates our position as a country is that the different N1 entities that comprise the South African nation are unequal in many respects and also share different and mainly antagonistic histories. The third important characteristic of our country is that we are shy to search for and communicate the truth. This last characteristic is related to our tendency to deal with issues at a superficial level. We often come up with simplistic quick-fix solutions even before we have made a thoughtful and considered diagnosis of a problem. We then contrive a diagnosis to fit our preconcieved treatment.

For instance, we have said for a long time that we need national reconciliation, nation-building and national social cohesion, but we have not adequately dissected the historical and contemporary basis for why these noble objectives are necessary.

Very few among us have attempted to state categorically that, for genuine reconciliation and nation building to occur, those who previously had the monopoly on political, economic, and cultural power must, of necessity, expect to suffer a degree of pain, discomfort, and marginalisation while the nation and the state pursue the stated objectives.

The few who have tried to alert us to the deep-seated, unresolved, and difficult psychological and structural legacy of our past have been either shouted down or ignored.

We bought in to the one-sided and sham reconciliation and to the miracle of a rainbow nation because these fitted in with our reluctance to examine issues at a level beyond the superficial one.

We often seem to be satisfied with the type of reconciliation and social cohesion that consists in having a braai together and one that lasts for the 80 to 90 minutes of rugby and football matches respectively.

In the context of the above milieu, the statues war would indicate that the students do not or no longer accept the strategic direction of the country with respect to nation-building that was implicated by the negotiated settlement.

In the absence of a political consensus for the apparent change of strategic direction, and in the absence of a an inclination by the students to follow the established democratic political route for achieving their goals, the objectives of the students could only be achieved through a revolution of one form or another.

But the pertinent question for me is whether, given all the myriad problems that the students and the country face, the war against statues represents the most important and significant urgent cause that ought to be championed now. I am not convinced that this is the case.

I am equally not convinced that the nascent revolution is led, or that it is ably led.

This discussion presupposes that we are not yet in a revolution because in a revolution all analysis is best left till the end of the revolution.

One thing that the students have not articulated clearly is what is the ultimate strategic destination that is aimed at and what its implications are for nation-building and the nation-state. Have we given up on the prospect for achieving anything remotely resembling a nation in the sense of Gyekye’s N3 or N4? And if so, what do we envisage as the relationship between, and the place in a future political set-up of the various N1 entities that currently collectively constitute the South African nation?

In a setting wherein there are limited resources (financial, expertise, space and personnel) and multiple demands, the prudent thing to do would be to ration and prioritise the deployment of the limited resources according to greatest need and greatest likelihood of a positive impact.

Some of the specific problems that beset tertiary education in South Africa are:

» The grossly inadequate access to tertiary education;

» The majority of school-leavers are inadequately prepared to succeed at first-year university education at the first attempt;

» There is a lack of adequate and humane hostel facilities for students;

» There is a lack of adequate, affordable and consistent supply of nutritious food for students;

» We are dealing with an untransformed curriculum and faculty, and a learning and social environment that alienates many black students; and

» There are unsafe environments for students on and off campus.

In the current circumstances, does the war against inert stone and cement qualify to be number one on the list of our priorities?

On the specific question of how to deal with the statues of infamous people, several options present themselves:

» The statues could be left undisturbed where they are;

» They could be moved to different areas in the same vicinities;

» They could be shipped en masse for display or storage in museums;

» They could be destroyed completely, as recently happened in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East; or

» They could be left where they are and ways found to communicate an alternative narrative to that which they currently purport to communicate.

The latter option could be achieved by incorporating within the curriculum of the educational institutions where the statues are located a compulsory critical analysis of the history of the men and women that the statues represent and by incorporating/adding other permanent forms of artistic expression that juxtapose and interrogate the history and meaning represented by the present statues with an alternative narrative that highlights the perspective of the vanquished. The latter objective could be achieved in the form of writings, statues, gardens of remembrance or delineated art squares.

But the current, almost-uniform chorus for the statues to be removed and shipped to the museums is perfectly in keeping with our approach to complex issues – find a simple solution and convince a vociferous number to champion it and drown out any other suggested alternative solution.

In coming to the final conclusion as to the most appropriate option to deal with the statues, two of the most pertinent considerations would be: What would serve the best interests of the current and future generations of South Africans and what strategic intent do we want to communicate to ourselves, the world, and our future generations about the type of country we envisage and desire South Africa to be?

There is an argument that the singular meaning that can possibly be extracted from the placing of these statues in prominent positions where they are located is that they are to be glorified and the history and persons that they represent exalted.

Even if that were the original uniform intention of the people who commissioned and erected the statues, ought we to continue to invest these statues with such significance and meaning?

But in the current era, in which we have the luxury to choose the cause we fight for rather than being thrust into it, in which something as reflexive as raising your hand against gravity marks one as a revolutionary, and in which one of our pressing challenges is whether our favourite brand of alcoholic beverage will be available in abundance at the coming weekend’s party, I suppose we can afford to flip the priority list upside down – just because we can, and because destroying things is infinitely easier than building.

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