What Must Happen After Rhodes Falls

2015-03-21 23:08

The whole country has been taken up, rightfully so, in what can be viewed as a truly revolutionary and radical move by the student leaders of the University of Cape Town in calling for the removal of the statue of the former colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Much of the debate has been centered around why the statue must fall. Unfortunately, many have failed to see the bigger picture and merely see the removal of the historic piece as just that(with some totally missing the point and focusing on the poo). They could not be any farther from the truth: the falling of the Rhodes monument has far-reaching implications and the next step needs careful thought and action.

(Before writing this, I promised myself that I’ll not enter into the merits of why the statue must be removed in the first instance and that I’ll only focus on what must come next. But my conscience refuses me the luxury of being left out of the discourse around this issue. (I also happen to like things.) So allow me to vent a bit.)

The statue if Rhodes does more than just celebrate a man who had “a vision for Africa and her civilization”, but is also a stark reminder of our poignant past. It tells us that natives needed a man from above to descend and “have a vision for Africa and her civilization” and that they were backward and needed a saviour. It reminds us of how the original inhabitants of the land where Rhodes had his seat of power were removed like animals to make space for Rhodes’ “vision”. It’s quite silly, actually, to treat the founding of a university as if it’s a “genius” idea when, in fact, many have existed before. And when you consider that much of the Rhodes legacy was enjoyed by white people and not the vast masses of the native African people, you actually realize that this fellow was no hero who achieved anything greater than the ordinary job of a colonialist (that is, to educate fellow colonialists to give them more of an advantage over the natives). Rhodes was no hero or great esteemed visionary; he deserves a statue no more than its designer, who was also merely doing his job, deserves one.

Of course we cannot downplay history, no matter how painful it is. Otherwise we wouldn’t know about Hitler and Mussolini (not many statues of them around, by the way). And so this is why we have places, like museums, that people can visit to remind themselves of where we come from. Some of us know very well what museums are because the memory of many of our heroes, like Nxele, has been holed up in dark rooms behind glasses for many years; space must now be made for Rhodes.

But let me not get distracted, and neither should you or the student leaders who have ably conceptualized this particular issue. In all likelihood the statue will be removed. But surely this is not why the issue started in the first place? It is hard to imagine that people want the statue removed merely because they don’t like its cosmetic appearance. Surely more must be done.

Without presuming to have all answers (indeed this piece serves to instigate a discussion) let me make a few suggestions on what must happen next. Firstly, it is clear that the issue at hand here is one of symbolism. That is, more than anything we would like to remove all symbols of Apartheid in our society for obvious reasons (well, I hope they are obvious to all). Thus, after the successful removal of this symbol, our we must move towards a point where they remove symbols of Apartheid that exist in other universities. Each university should ask itself which symbol of our dark history does it still extol. Some of the university residences and lecture halls still exalt past leaders of Apartheid, for some strange twisted reason. It’s all good and well to write #RhodesMustFall on twitter, but it becomes all sorts of weird when you then attend lectures in, say, Malan Building at, say, Rhodes University.

Obviously symbols of Apartheid do not just exist in our universities. People should be more resistant to attempts to venerate past leaders of apartheid in their communities. You all know what I’m getting at here: that street named for FW de Klerk (we cannot forgive the DA for that) and other statues in our respective town squares. It cannot be that when we are trying to move forward as a nation, symbols of Rhodes and Co. pop up in all forms and shapes in various spaces within our society.

The momentum from the removal of the Rhodes celebration in UCT can also be used further to fight psychological oppression in other areas of our life like education. Our education must be used to communicate to learners who the real enemies of the people were and who our heroes are. The likes of Rhodes and Botha are not heroes; Mandela and Kathrada and Biko and Tambo and Slovo and Hani are heroes. Other areas where strongholds of Apartheid are still visible include land, economy and language.

Essentially what I am saying here is that more than anything, the removal of Rhodes from UCT must act as a catalyst for the removal of remnants of white minority oppression from our lives. The removal of the statue of Rhodes is, to many South Africans, part of a process of dismantling the legacy of oppression that they see around them. It is laughable that some people in our country seem to think that racial equality can really happen when blokes who disrespected black people are still being worshiped. Of course much resistance is to be expected from the myopic “lets’ forget the past and move on” brigade whose real racism is veiled behind the flowery language of “social cohesion”.  To uproot all forms of white domination, the #RhodesMustFall campaign must continue, unabated and more powerfully, and must transcend to all sectors of our society. Otherwise, really, we’re wasting our time here.

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