Saturday, 4 April 2015

A statue of Rhodes is set to fall, but a history cast in stone, persists...

Statues have a strange effect on the human psyche. Their stone absurdities haunt mankind, or comfort men and women, as though their strange figures still breath, walk and sprint upon the far-flung hinterlands of the mind. The fall of the statue of a somewhat unfortunate dictator, a Mr Saddam Hussein, seemed a perfect signifier of sentiment in Iraq, as the very glorious westerners brought lifelong democracy and eternal salvation with them... That the CIA orchestrated the event in question, was not immediately announced, but subsequently hit page 9 of some newspapers, years later.

Statues make us think. In Europe, the way a statue is crafted can tell you how its namesake died.

In a little mineral based economy at the southern tip of a largely unnoticed little continent called Africa, a statue of a man who died ages ago is causing a bit of a hiccup.

The man in question was the great, and terrible industrial businessman of his time. He acquired abundant wealth, and lived in luxury. Like most wealthy monopolists of his time, his wealth and conditions of life were quite opposed to what his workers and employees could expect from their own second hand cradle and soon to be dug grave. He insisted people wear trousers, which caused great hardship to people who farmed for a living. His egregious must-wear-trousers  scheme gave him cheap labour to extract minerals within the devil's mouth of his mines.

Make no mistake, many of the most essential parts of South African infrastructure exist today because of the man in question. Our economy and business world owe certain amounts of their profits to the business acumen of the ruthless man Rhodes.

He set up the University of Cape Town, and is the namesake of Rhodes University (which in modern times owes more to its name than to any current reputational gap with its competitors).

Rhodesia quickly became Zimbabwe when its colonial rulers were militarily thwarted. South Africa has also taken upon itself to change the names of landmarks, even those which are quite neutral, poetic, and known across the world (or were until their names were changed).

The ancient Egyptians had a poetic curse. Those who were most particularly worthy of infamy, where wiped from the historic record. Their monuments were destroyed, and their name was pencilled over. The most monstrous of people, or the least liked were erased.This approach is distinct from the approach of the Chinese dynasties, which had history rewritten to blacken the names of their predecessors. The approach of that fearless thing, democracy, has been slightly different. Rather than fear the ghosts of yesteryear, an approach has emerged, that seeks to preserve history, both good and evil. History, is a lesson according to such an approach. It is a hard fought knowledge that must be heard, and must be remembered, with tales of caution, and carefulness to study from the ruin of others.

Napoleon might have mercilessly pursued his opponents, but the French would not dismantle his statues or his monuments. Even those who believe him akin to a secular anti-christ, would hardly dare desire to lay ruin to his statues. His monuments, remind them of both his terrible wrath and madness, and of the great feats he achieved in other areas.

Statues make us ask about history, they bring it to life in a way that writing alone will not.

Ghandi, had some very racist things to say about black South Africans, when he was still walking the earth. From his horrendous statements, one might think he believed his fellow human beings to be below the basic dignity of human rights.

We do not remember Ghandi for this reason however. We remember him for his pursuit of peace. We do not tear down his statues, and demand that the world view him by one context only. In fact, we recognise that his views were more a product of his social upbringing at the time, a defect, than something that is connected to his greatness. We view Ghandi as a whole human being, we view the good with acclaim, and we view the bad with sadness.

A poll conducted around the time UCT decided that they would be moving or removing the statue, found that the vast majority of students opposed such a move.

The 'debates' held, involved black African students chanting 'k*ff*r', and shaming white students in general, according to media reports. The white students who attended, shared how ashamed they were to be white, because certain white people had been evil towards black people in the past. Whether race shaming is acceptable if the person doing it is the skin colour, or whether it is still the judgement of a race based on the actions of individuals is another issue entirely. The whole thing started with vandalism of the statue, with a student proudly taking responsibility for dumping human excrement upon the stone-faced image. The students campaigning against the statue placed Nazi swastikas around campus, and did other disruptive things. Beyond the statue, they announced that they wanted more black lecturers, and inevitably less white ones.

An early industrialist, who was expert at business, and lacking in respect for human dignity, has become the centre of a storm. A lynch mob, at odds with the majority of students at UCT, shouting and plastering up offensive symbols, has succeeded in calling for the removal of a statue.

The ANCYL now wants the statue of Paul Kruger to be removed. He too, like Ghandi and like Cecil John Rhodes, was a product of his times. His faults were almost inevitable, given the society he was raised in, in a world that had no concept yet of civil rights. He is also one of the shaping forces which made South Africa what it is today.

Students who want Rhodes University to change its name will succeed in graduating from a university that no one has heard of, rather than from one with a reputation spanning many years, a reputation no longer linked to Cecil John Rhodes, but to academic excellence.

Wiping Cecil John Rhodes from textbooks, and from public spaces, will deny those same students the opportunity to teach their children about what good, and what evil Rhodes did, there will be no reason to ask about him, or his role in shaping South Africa.

Take away the Voortrekker monument, and there is no longer a reason to ask why the Afrikaners fled the cape, or what role rivalry between English and Afrikaans South Africans played in the lead up to Apartheid. The main English language party at the time gained many votes from coloured South Africans, denying them the vote, was a pragmatic move for the Afrikaner nationalists, in their political war against the British. Political opportunism caused what today is called a crime against humanity. Opportunism based on hatred of another culture, born from wars between the four colonist nations that once formed South Africa.

When we finally stop seeing the world in black and white, and instead see people who offer us lessons with their good and ill judgements, perhaps we can be comfortable with history.

Insisting white lecturers be replaced, will only mean that the standard is no longer that the best lecturer gets a job, but rather another criteria, which can then become one of a vast list of criteria. The result is that the students in question are no longer guaranteed the best education they can afford. Instead, they are offered something less, something yet still more befitting their comfort zone.

There are two ways of viewing history: objectively, as that which really has happened, or, subjectively, seeking to destroy the fame and infamy of the long dead, who neither benefit, nor lose any sleep, either way. It is we who lose, when the hard learned, deeply painful lessons of history are erased for the sake of staying within a false comfort zone.

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