From the Arc de triomphe in Paris to the statue of liberty in New York, every nation has its symbols. Why should ours be those of our oppressors?
In his album Uprising Bob Marley opens with the hit song Coming in from the cold but the album released after that, Survival, is probably Bob Marley’s most forthright album ever. For starters, the album sleeve features a picture of a slave ship cargo hold with its cargo tightly packed with no room for movement for the arduous Atlantic crossing. His songs exhort fans to “wake up and live” reminds everyone that “we are the black survivors” and calls on Africans to unite. He celebrates the Africans’ liberation of Zimbabwe in a song he wrote after receiving the massively honourable invitation to perform at that country’s Independence day. But it is in the song Babylon System that Bob Marley writes lines that can best express what is beginning to happen in South Africa today. In the opening of the song he calmly and firmly states, “we refuse to be/what you wanted us to be/we are what we are/ and that’s the way, it’s going to be!” Later on in the song he declares, “We’ve been taken for granted much too long/we’ve been trampled on” and urges his people to “rebel!”
Compare this to the words of Student Representative Council President Ramabina Mahapa at the transformation assembly recently held at the University Of Cape Town to debate the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from a place of prominence on the campus. Independent online reports:
“Do not bring up the argument that we must preserve history. When you decided on things, we were not here. We were not allowed here,” said Mahapa.
Referring to something his grandmother said, Mahapa told the crowd: “You cannot teach a man born blind about the colour red. He was not born with the experience of seeing. Our white brothers will not understand our lived experience.” http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/tears-as-uct-debates-rhodes-statue-1.1837070#.VRPH7vmUdtg
Late Night News “presenter” Chester Missing interviewed a senior white official from the University of Cape Town who shocked the puppet by saying something to the effect that Rhodes donated land for the UCT campus and even for State House and that if we are going to tell philanthropists we will accept their donations only to discard their efforts later would be discouraging the future philanthropy!
Therein lies the problem. Right there.
There seems to be an inability by many white and black commentators to grasp the enormity of colonial and apartheid era crimes and the argument most often used to defend this is both eras “brought some good” to Africa. You cannot do any good to people whose country and land you have invaded and stolen. You cannot “improve” on stolen goods. It is that simple. When you find that academics think of the likes of Rhodes as philanthropists to whom the formerly oppressed should be grateful, you realise how far apart black and white are in their understanding of reconciliation. You cannot be a philanthropist with wealth built from stolen property!
The second source of anger for black people is the willful ignorance displayed by very large sections of the white community on historical events that show colonisers in bad light as if those events do not matter. This willingness to either pretend atrocities did not happen or brush them off as things best left in the past is insulting to black people.
Then there is the argument, both by black and white, that declares there are bigger things to worry about, like crime and unemployment, than to solve a statue problem.
Hello! The first thing that needs to be solved in every formerly oppressed country is mental oppression. What is this idea that the formerly oppressed must live with the symbols of the triumph of the oppressor? Why are Sadaam Hussein’s statues no longer standing in Iraq? Why is there is no Adolf Hitler avenue in Paris and Warsaw? Why has Israel been hunting Nazis for decades after the end of the second world war? And our students rightly ask, why must there be a Rhodes statue in a place of prominence anywhere in Southern Africa? Indeed, why should Rhodes lie buried in an area that is spiritually sacred to indigenous Zimbabweans? Why must the formerly black oppressed nations of the world be the ones for forgive and forget?
But it is always the students isn’t it? They jolt us out of our polite societies and ask uncomfortable questions. There is a new awakening in South Africa and it is being manifested by vocal young students who are presenting questions for Rainbow Nation 2.0. Twenty five years after the release of Nelson Mandela, the students are beginning to release themselves from the absurd notion that they should be grateful to colonialism and apartheid for the “benefits” they brought.
The South African government has declared 2015 the year of building national identity through the use of national symbols such as the national flag, anthem and preamble of the constitution. What do you do though when senior academics temper that identity with assertions that out children should be grateful? Who will supervise the teacher who chooses to use the Voortrekker monument in a lesson to young impressionable minds about how “God delivered the Zulus unto us?” What about the parent who regularly used the “K” word at home and consequently has their child using it at a sports event to denigrate black children? How many private schools do you think will celebrate Africa month in May 2015?
Our students are reminding us that when you allow symbols that glorify those who oppressed you to stay, you mentally allow the descendants of the oppressor to carry on living, working and behaving as if, short of the colour of the people holding political office, nothing has really changed. And that is dangerous.
Should white South Africans wear sack cloth and smear ash on their faces forever and a day? Of course not! They should, however, show a firm rejection of the past and boldly declare “not in our name!” They should show that they understand that throughout history, there has been good and evil and that both know no colour. White political leaders like those in the Freedom Front should stop the inflammatory position that “there was no one here when we arrived.” They should acknowledge the crime that apartheid was and stop looking for nuances and the best way to demonstrate this is to live as citizens committed to the building of a non-racial society. This includes “little” everyday issues as allowing access to customers of any race to restaurants, bed and breakfasts, private school staff rooms and social events. It includes the “big” things such as genuinely sharing business transactions that their historical advantage gives them. I have a lot of respect for old sayings and one of them says “it is the little things that count.” The students have been very clear and a common refrain has been “white privilege.” This notion would fade away if black people in general saw a genuine and concerted effort towards transformation in all walks of life.
Why are symbols important? They define a people
Martin Meredith reminds us of what kind of man Rhodes was. When “three Tswana Chiefs, Kgana, Sebele and Bathoen, arrived in London to make clear to the colonial office their vehement opposition to any plan to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the (British South Africa) company” and won their case, Rhodes responded thus: “It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by three niggers. They think more of one native at home, than the whole of South Africa….I do object to be beaten by three canting natives.” In a letter to the Duke of Fife in December, Rhodes expressed his disgust: “A large country as big as the Bristish Isles will now be definitely beaconed and dedicated to these people. It will be very difficult in future to alter these reserves. Who are these people? They are only sixty thousand in number and the worst specimens of humanity.”
You will find that same with Sheptsone, Jameson and a whole host of others who were involved in the criminal enterprise that was colonialism and whose names still mock us from street signs to entire towns!
It is unacceptable. Fortunately, we live in a democratic and free society courtesy of the post 1994 government. These symbols will be dated, removed in a peaceful manner and orderly process. Our people did not have the same courtesy extended to them by the colonialists. Today, our people are coming in from the cold and “emancipating themselves from the mental slavery” that pretends everything is fine. Today, we have a new uprising and it is all in the mind.