What else has to fall?

2015-04-12 15:00


We chose a different form of freedom. Instead of a victor’s freedom, where Umkhonto weSizwe soldiers rolled into town in a display of power change, our founding president, Nelson Mandela, prodded and cajoled his people into what many still call a 21st-century miracle: South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

This is no small gift he left us. In countries with deep and unfair struggles, victors have, in turn, grappled with state and nation making. And they have often been unsuccessful.

On our continent, the two Sudans prove this; so does the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lacks national coherence; as does the Central African Republic. Russia’s efforts at nation making are chaotic, with the conflict in Ukraine revealing President Vladimir Putin’s taste for empire.

Many nations of the Middle East reveal similar chaos with nation making and peaceful unity.

So, bring down statues of old colonialists for sure, but don’t forget our founding concept of the value of a peaceful transition and the embrace of difference, be it political, sexual or ideological.

There are some statues that should go, but how do they go? In negotiation and on reaching a social consensus, or with the power of might and intimidation? There was intimidation aplenty this week when University of Cape Town (UCT) students entered their council hall and disrupted it.

We should take care not to now start the race war our liberation generation successfully avoided.

We mourned Mandela as we did for a reason, because of how he brought us freedom. Let us not forget the dividends of his peace, while also knowing there is still a long walk to the deeper freedom the UCT students have alerted us to.


Finally, South Africa had the catharsis it was robbed of in 1994. As the valourised statue of Cecil John Rhodes came down on Thursday evening on the lawns of UCT, so the country let out a sigh. Freedom, some said, had come, finally.

For the fearful, here was the freedom they had feared in 1994 – angry young people tearing down a statue of a “white man” – for that is all most people know of Rhodes, the archimperialist who brought the railroad and mining industry to our region.

It was a week of wars on statues: from a wartime memorial to horses in Port Elizabeth, Louis Botha outside Parliament and Paul Kruger in Pretoria, the graven images of apartheid and colonial heroes were defaced and daubed.

South Africa needs a moment like this – a proper uhuru to bring about the clear delineation of new power relations we shrank away from in 1994. All colonial and apartheid statues should come down. And a more fulsome freedom must take its place.

This means, for universities, a deeper change to curriculums and faculties. In the economy, the patterns of employment and wealth creation need to shift to give the black majority a slice of the pie.

This is about much more than statues.

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