Thank you UCT Students for #RhodesMustFall

2015-04-05 19:13

When I first read about the #RhodesMustFall protest, I thought it was crazy to demand the removal of such a statue as though you’re erasing some part of history. Then I thought why not just put up a statue of Mandela, Sisulu, or Thambo next to it? Then the issue got bigger than just Cecil Rhodes, other monuments became the target too as some are demanding the removal of all statues erected before 1994.

I, and some white South Africans, suggested that perhaps we should say UCT must fall too, anything to do with Rhodes must go (my Rhodes Trust Scholarship application though). But then I later realised, after reading more on symbolism, that this is not just about the statues many of us walk past every day without paying attention to them, or care to find out about what the statue represents, while birds enjoy relieving themselves on them.

It is about the ideals the individuals being honoured stood for – the idea behind the symbol. A man once said if you think symbolism is not important, throw away your banknotes and put newspapers in your wallet because the banknotes are also just paper, the difference being the meaning assigned to them.

The #RhodesMustFall protest clearly stems from students’ impatience with UCT slow transformation. How does a statue fit in? Look at it this way then you might understand. When St. Buja is hungry, he gets very irritable, and when there is no food, he cleans the house, gets rid of all the trash.

Does Rhodes represent the trash? To some he may be worthy of praise, love and adoration, but to some he is a source of misery. One man’s terrorist is another man’s hero kinda thing. Think about Mandela being loved by many South Africans and despised by some who believe he sold them out and those who saw him as a terrorist.

I know what Mandela’s statue at the Union Buildings symbolises, but I struggle to find a statue erected before 1994 that represents my heritage. Note that I said statues, not buildings. We cannot demolish the Union Buildings just because it was ‘built’ by the oppressors. Buildings we can use, and are happy to do so even if Verwoerd himself was the bricklayer. But what purpose do statues erected before 1994 serve to the majority except remind us of our nasty past and honour the perpetrators?

Personally, I could not be bothered about whose statue stands where, as that makes no immediate difference in my life. If it paid my UWC fees that I owe for the 2014, and 2015 academic year, I’d care deeply. I have much bigger issues to worry about than those statues of our former oppressors.

But I do understand why some may take issue with the presence of such statues. Imagine you’re confronted by institutional racism every time you walk into UCT, and there he is, Cecil Rhodes being honoured, one of the causes of such institutional racism. I imagine it would be irritating as it suggests that the institution is proud of its racist heritage, making it more challenging if you sought to change things. Therefore, starting with the heritage that seems to be the central pillar of the problem seems plausible.

It is not difficult to understand why many South Africans would not want to see such faces being honoured considering the crimes committed by those individuals against black people. But as some commentators have asked, why would anyone in South Africa today want to keep honouring such individuals? Oh one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero.

In 1994, it made sense not to touch the issue of what represents South Africa’s heritage, what statues and monuments are to be preserved, if any, because at that time, there were a lot of emotions and it would have just messed things up. In many other parts of Africa and the world, statues are the first to fall during a revolution as they represent the pride of the social problem at the time, some even burn flags (another symbol). Of course Mandela wanted to keep such symbols. But we are not Mandela, may have loved the man but certainly did not endorse all his decisions.

And now we can have such an open debate, thanks to the #RhodesMustFall protest, talk about what heritage means to us, what is worth preserving. And yes, we know that removing statues won’t fix load shedding or stop the looting of public money, nor will it improve the quality of our education. But challenging the ideas such statues represent might help us in healing the wounds left by the individual being honoured with the statue. To many people the statues appear to be meaningless but once you start thinking about the ideas behind them, then views change.

Suggesting that such a debate on whose statues should and should not be erected is stupid, considering the issues our country needs to address, is not helpful, as issues are addressed by first getting to the roots of the problem. And well… Rhodes and co did cause a lot of problems for a lot of people. If I had to face institutional racism every day and see one of the causes, I’d probably want the cause out too so I can deal with the situation.

This whole debate is very tricky because racism in South Africa remains a sensitive topic for most. It’s much easier and comforting to postpone such engagements for some, but it gets many people all excited. It is important that such debates are initiated, regardless of how they are initiated, they help us understand each other’s perspectives of things past, current and where we wish to go. It is also important to let all voices be heard because when any voice is suppressed, none can claim to be free. So, however you may feel about the statues, respect the way other people feel about them, even if you find their views to be nothing but absolute nonsense. Remember that we may attach a different meaning to the same object.

Yes removing the statue does not change the past nor does it magically change a black man’s fortunes, but if it is not important, why is it so difficult to get rid of it?

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