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Memory and moving forward: #RhodesMustFall is not a shit argument

The structures of segregation are still alive in South Africa, nationally, regionally and globally. Preserving the memory of them as if they are gone is a means by which we pretend that they do not still function in our every day. Sometimes it takes the shit to hit the fan to realise that we have to clean house

If you do not like something, throw poop at it.

This was the thinking of some protesters who called for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Those calling for the removal of the statue say that the celebration of the British colonialist cannot be allowed to continue and rightly so. Despite the wildly unhygienic nature of the protest, sometimes you need a shit storm in order to gauge the true nature of the social-political climate.

There are some who denounce the Rhodes statue debate as a shallow interaction with a larger, deeper and more complex structural issue. Nevertheless, the debate has allowed for something tangible to be grasped at in the ongoing discussion surrounding history, race and remembering.

As a continent whose history is steeped in racial wrongs we are no strangers to trying to wipe out the past in the name of embracing the future. The era of decolonisation that swept across the continent from the 1950s was met with a sweep of name changes and the erection of new statues all in the spirit of moving forward. We even went as far as making sure our particular brand of dubious national rule was separated from the colonialists by coining the term ‘neo-colonialism.’
Everything was new then. Yet despite the fact that everything changed, the memory of what happened remained. To sit with people who were alive during the years of the struggle for independence is to know that those scars still linger even though the master and the memorials are gone. There was no need for statues of white men to remind those who had lived through the trauma that colonialism had happened.

The same is probably true of South Africa.

The Rhodes Statue covered in paper and plastic by the protesting students. Photo: Trendsmap
The Rhodes Statue covered in paper and plastic by the protesting students. Photo: Trendsmap

There is no need to keep the mementos of the past in place because the entire country is one huge relic of the past. One needs only to walk the streets of Cape Town to see how much the past has staked its claim on the present. Social spaces are still segregated. The Group Areas Act may have come and gone but it is so deeply entrenched in the social architecture it does not need political might to enforce it anymore. Being the only black person in a space is a very real and constant occurrence. Especially if you love a good wooded chardonnay.

The shadow of apartheid looms over everything. The majority of the country’s wealth is still held by the minority (Kenny Kunene and Cyril Rhamaphosa do not represent the ‘average’ black South African) and state sanctioned violence is still concentrated within the black communities.
So what is it that we are trying to hard not to forget by keeping the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in place? I don’t understand. ‘Let us remember what happened so we do not go there again,’ some say. But we live there, every day.

To insist that the history must be kept alive through statues is to pretend that it is not being kept alive through the everyday workings of society. To insist on this past preservation is to deny the very brutal present.

Given the state of affairs arguments – especially from brown people – that statues such as those of Cecil John Rhodes should be left as they stand because they are part of the spirit of forgiveness and healing are problematic. It is again the victims who are told to ‘settle down’ because everything is better now and all these statues do is remind us of a past we do not want.

The Rhodes Statue. Photo: Alicia Brenhaug
The Rhodes Statue. Photo: Alicia Brenhaug

The time for playing nice nice is over. All settling down has gotten subjugated people around the world is Ferguson, Marikana, phony structural adjustment programs, resource-driven conflict sponsored by Western countries and people chatting mess on Twitter about ‘Africa and Ebola/Aids/starvation/crime’. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house has not helped us at all”.

History is important to preserve but there are surely ways of doing it that do not continue to traumatise those who suffered the worst of it. To have a statue sitting there supposedly looking into the heart of Africa (already a deeply sinister thought) does not speak to a purposeful preservation of history.

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Perhaps the best way forward would be to curate some of the memorials in a safe educational space in which a true contextual history can be given to those who seek it. But to be sure, tearing down of the statue is not going to obliterate structural racism in one swoop. We will not suddenly see an Afrikaans man jump into the open arms of his Zulu employee. We will not all rush to the same drinking spots and there won’t suddenly be an influx of black people coming to UCT. But what will happen is that people will begin to understand more and more that there is something going on that cannot be ignored in the name of a ‘post racial/ post-apartheid’ world.

The structures of segregation are still alive, nationally, regionally and globally. Preserving the memory of them as if they are gone is a means by which we pretend that they do not still function in our every day. Sometimes it takes the shit to hit the fan to realise that we have to clean house.

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