You’re probably going to hear (or read) me using the word “colonialism” (and “shit”) quite a bit in this post, because in this wonderful, crazy country of ours, it’s the newest buzzword since “Nkandla.” However, whilst I was drafting this in my mind (before getting up a 3 a.m. to type it before I lost my train of thought) it struck me that after democracy back in 1994, one of the first things South Africa did was rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations. You know – the colonial old boys’ club, that used to be called the British Commonwealth. Because nothing says, “We are shaking off the chains of our old oppressors!” like joining an organization that results in us having a British High Commissioner, instead of an ambassador, because of some arcane protocol. Still, at least we don’t have Queen Liz on the currency. Then again, we also don’t have Zuma on our stamps, because people wouldn’t know which side to spit on.
Now one thing you need to know about South Africans – all South Africans, regardless of race, nationality, creed, religion, pet ownership, etc. – we LOVE to be outraged, in much the same way American fundamentalists LOVE to feel persecuted. No, really. Our best-known political cartoonist (himself a Jew) prints a cartoon critical of Israel, Jews lose their shit; somebody decides to open a mosque that doesn’t treat women as second class humans and even *horrors!* allows gays inside, so-called moderate Muslims lose their shit; a white farmer shoots a black man, the ANC Women’s League lose their shit; a white farmer is killed by a black man, Afriforum lose their shit. And so it goes.
The latest bout of outrage – coming in various forms from all over the political spectrum – deals with statues and monuments that pre-date 1994, and more specifically hark back to our colonial past. There’s a very good reason I used the phrase “lose their shit” repeatedly in the above paragraph, because that is essentially how it all got started. Some political science student, whose name I honestly can’t be arsed to look up, decided that – whilst being one of the privileged few who actually get to study at a university in this country – he would bolster his CV for future cadre deployment (i.e. how the ANC appoints managers to run important things like the national power provider and national broadcaster – which is why our lights keep going off, and the SABC is showing Kojak reruns every day. Not to mention it’s then Chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala, totally made up her qualifications and then blamed the university for not providing copies of the qualifications she’d totally made up), he was so oppressed by having to walk past the statue of Cecil John Rhodes (brief history lesson for foreign readers – he made a fortune on the Kimberly diamond rush, went on to be Prime Minister of the then Cape Colony, had Rhodesia named after him and generally did all the nasty, arseholey things that the British Empire did at the time – colonizing countries through the clever use of flags, that sort of thing) that he just shat himself.
And then took matters into his own hands.
Because if you really want to attract attention to your gripe you don’t write to the press, or your minister (mostly because thanks to proportional representation nobody has a fucking clue who their minister is). No, you take a handful, or two – I’m not that keen on the finer details – of shit (I assume his own, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate) and throw it at the offending object. Clearly, “personal hygiene” isn’t part of the political sciences curriculum. (I was going to use a metaphor about monkeys throwing shit, but I just knew people would get OUTRAGED and lose their shit.)
Now, firstly, feeling so offended by a statue that you need to a) crap in a bag (dear gawd, please let it have been a bag), b) carry said bag around Cape Town during the warmest part of its summer, and c) flinging said excrement on to said statue, is about as dumb as a Christian throwing a bag of crap at a synagogue, because, ya know, the Jews killed Jesus (It’s not, however, beneath neo-Nazis to do, apparently). Or a Neo-Confederate throwing shit at the Lincoln Memorial, because emancipation.
Still, it was a handful of shit that started the debate… which has sadly sunk even deeper into the sewer. The problem is that the honours bestowed upon Rhodes come from a very different time, when he was doing all sorts of wonderful things for King and Empire. He also happened to be trampling over a whole bunch of black people while he did so. Much like they were in America at the same time… when they weren’t too busy virtually exterminating the Native Americans, or wiping out the Aborigines Down Under. Although, that was Rhodes’ kinsmen, not Americans – we can’t blame them for everything. It’s a tricky point – people like Rhodes and Barney Barnato are intricately linked to the history of South Africa, and in many ways played a role in putting the country on the map. Then again, King Leopold of Belgium is intricately linked to the history of the DR Congo and I have a strange feeling there aren’t many statues to him in Kinshasa. Oh, snap.
Anyway, there were protests and sit-ins and a whole bunch of liberal arts students were outraged at just how oppressed they all suddenly were by this statue and #Rhodesmustgo became a thing. (Maybe if they’d Tweeted #OurGirlsMustGo, instead of #BringBackOurGirls, they would have had a better response?) And eventually, UCT’s administration decided that before any overly oppressed students started throwing themselves under buses, because life had suddenly become so unbearable, they covered up the statue, pending “its move to a more suitable location.”
There’s one small problem with that – Rhodes’ statue sits in the FUCKING RHODES MEMORIAL – an enormous granite, or marble, or whatever edifice, sitting boldly on a hillside and reached via a gazillon steps. In terms of “more suitable locations” there technically isn’t one. The location was kinda built for it. It would be a bit like walking into the Lincoln Memorial and seeing an empty chair, because a few folk from Mississippi had – ahem – lost their shit, because they couldn’t own black folk no more. Still, I’m sure that when the statue is relocated far from where students of a nervous disposition can see it, they can find a use for the now meaningless edifice.
I’d suggest breaking it up and using it pave the driveway at Nkandla. Because why shouldn’t a monument to colonialism go towards a monument to rampant corruption? I think it’s a nice way to bridge the gap between the old and new South Africa.
Update: Ok, my bad – they aren’t bitching about the Rhodes statue at the Rhodes memorial, they’re bitching about the Rhodes statue at the Jammie Steps (which sounds like quite a nice biscuit) on the actual campus. Which actually highlights the problem with this debate even more: We’re all clutching our pearls over this statue, and not saying a word about the big, huge, enormous edifice built for the man. WTF?
The thing is, it didn’t stop there. And that highlights a very important problem this country has. Vast swathes of its population, even surrounding the major metropolitan areas are like Mississippi – poorly educated (and yes, that is apartheid’s fault – the majority of this country’s population were subjected to substandard “Bantu education”), poor, unemployed (SA has an official unemployment rate hovering around 25%, unofficial figures are probably higher), and are easily swayed by bullshit political rhetoric. We have a chronic housing problem, because people flock from the rural areas (and dysfunctional provinces, like Limpopo) in search of non-existent jobs, and end up living in a tin shack in squatter camps… I’m sorry, informal settlements. Needless to say, getting basic services to these can pose a problem, especially when you’re dealing with metropolitan municipalities that can’t seem to figure out how to keep traffic lights working when it rains. People get upset, mostly because somebody in search of a vote has promised that they’ll have a tap/toilet/house any day now, they get outraged, lose their shit, and we have what’s called a “service delivery protest” (aka rioting in the fucking streets) – which usually involves burning tyres on roads, thus managing to alienate passing commuters who might have given a shit about their plight, before their trip to the office took an extra two hours, and burning down the one or two things the local council might already have built for them – like libraries. Or the house that was built – for the local politician.
So when people like Pres Zuma stand up and say things “The Eskom load shedding problem is apartheid’s fault” (Because, look! The ANC is being so awesome in providing electricity to areas that didn’t previously have, including all the squatter camps. We just neglected to take into account where all that extra electricity is supposed to come from…), or more laughably “It’s Jan van Riebeek’s fault.” (The guy who landed here in 1652 to set up a halfway house for the Dutch on the way to pick up spices from the countries they were plundering in the East Indies), or even “The ANC will rule until Jesus returns!” an awful lot of people take that at face value. Your average South African is never going to be lauded for his critical thinking skills. Again, much like Mississippi.
Quick aside here: My mother was in hospital recently, and being the kind of person who’d have Hitler round for tea, because “he’s got a nice smile, hasn’t he?” befriended one of the cleaning staff. This lady lives in Diepsloot, one of the informal settlements to the north of Johannesburg and has been on a waiting list for a house since 1994. As she said, “I am so sick of the ANC! They lie! They say I get a house and still I wait. Now, this last election, I don’t vote for them. Ah, not for this Zuma.”
“Oh?” asked Mother. “Who did you vote for?”
“The EFF,” she replied. (More on these yahoos to come)
“Why?” asked Mother.
“Because they promised me a house.”
However, there’s another important aspect to consider – a great deal of the youth in this country are growing up historically illiterate. South Africa is turning 21 this year. The new curriculum (that clusterfuck called Outcomes Based Education) came into being around 1997. That’s 18 years ago. A normal school career lasts 12 years, which means that there’s at least six (more if you count those who drop history as a subject at the end of grade 9) generations of school leavers, whose only exposure to history has essentially been the struggle against apartheid. Anything prior to that has been virtually expunged from the history syllabus. It’s unlikely that somebody who passed matric last year would know who Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama, Harry the “Strandlooper,” Lord Kitchener, Simon van der Stel, Louis Trichardt, Piet Retief and possibly even people like Cetshwayo, Moshoeshoe, King Hintsa and Dingaan are. Luckily, they all know who Shaka is, thanks to yet another repeat on SABC. There’s also a plan afoot to make history a compulsory subject until matric, because apparently students in Cuba who take history all the way through are more indoctrinated… I mean, “politically aware.” Much like Outcomes Based Education, I foresee another monumental fuck-up-in-waiting to screw over countless other generations of scholars.
Admittedly, my schooling here took place in the 80s, at the height of PW Botha’s finger-wagging, total onslaught militarization of the country, and whilst we weren’t taught a word about Nelson Mandela (mostly because it was against the law to do so) we had Jan van Riebeek, the Boer War and the Great Trek drummed into us at every opportunity, to the point where I couldn’t wait to drop history at the end of grade 9. Although it did mean I could take biology, and slice things open, but that’s another story.
But just on the subject of the Great Trek and things like the British Empire stealing land from the locals. It is a truism, that when two different cultures come into contact, the more technologically advanced culture will replace or subdue the other. It happened with the Aztecs and the Conquistadors; hell it happened back when Neanderthals first noticed a smaller, skinnier, high-forebrowed version of themselves wandering into their domain. Yet, strangely, unlike their American, Spanish and Australian counterparts, here they (Brits, Boers, whoever) didn’t take it upon themselves to exterminate the local population, and they eventually gave the land back. Which, ironically in a way, is why we’re even having this “Wah! Colonialists are oppressing me!” debate.
But this kind of historical illiteracy, combined with rabble-rousing, popularist rhetoric is dangerous. Especially when you get idiots like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters involved. (Again, more background – the EFF was a party formed out of butthurt when Malema was booted from the ANC, because he’d pissed off Zuma once too often – this despite Malema running the “100% Zuluboy” campaign during Zuma’s rape trial. Yeah, in the US, have an affair, your political career is ove;, get accused of rape – and corruption – in South Africa, you become President. The EFF’s political stance is several degrees to the left of Stalin. The thing is, Malema is no genius, but he is politically astute. Which is a polite way of saying he’s a lying sack of shit, garnering votes by promising the poor, uneducated, unemployed masses land, houses and a minimum wage that would probably force most businesses to close overnight. He is very good at grandstanding but given how bolshie he is as the 3rd biggest party in Parliament, gawd help us all if he fools enough of the people just once.)
Now, Malema might be politically astute, most of his followers, however, wouldn’t be able to play snakes and ladders, unless you drew pictures for them. Which is why we have statues that have absolutely nothing to do with apartheid – such as the Rhodes statue and the memorial to Paul Kruger in Pretoria, being called “symbols of apartheid” and vandalized by… you guessed it, members of the EFF. But it gets worse. The memorial to the horses that served and died during the Second Boer War – again, a long time before apartheid – was smashed – by the EFF – because it was a symbol of colonialism and apartheid. Another statue, honouring volunteers from Uitenhage who also fought in the war between 1899 and 1902 (LONG BEFORE APARTHEID, MORONS!), was set alight via the delightful method of necklacing (placing a petrol-filled tyre around a person’s neck and setting it alight, usually after chopping their hands off first so they can’t lift it off – a common method employed by the ANC to deal with counter-revolutionaries and suspected spies in the 80s. Even Winnie Mandela is on record as saying “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” Such a lovely woman.)
Just a simple history lesson – yes, black people were treated badly before the National Party came into power and made apartheid state policy. But they were being treated badly everywhere at that time. Thomas Jefferson had slaves and his face is on Mount fucking Rushmore. If you really want to hold things from the past to today’s standards, then go outside, light your braai, and throw your Bible on it. Because how can a book where even Jesus advocates that disrespectful children must die possibly be moral?
Hell, I’d go as far as to say blacks still have it pretty rough in the US. At least in SA you can be black in public and stand a reasonably good chance of not being gunned down by the police… unless you’re a striking miner charging the police, of course. Then all bets are off. However, calling something that predates the National Party a “symbol of apartheid” just makes you look like an idiot. Or a knee-jerk, reactionary, bandwagon-jumping fuckwad.
But that’s the point. Yes, these statues might date back to the previous century, but they have absolutely NOTHING to do with colonialism, and certainly nothing to do with apartheid. These two in particular honour the heroic deeds of people and animals in times gone by.
Which raises the important question – where do you draw the line? What’s next to go? I could happily argue that Pietermaritzburg can do without its statue of Queen Victoria. But what about the statue to Dick King, who went to fetch help for his shipwrecked comrades? For that matter, what about the Afrikaans Language Monument? Yes, I can see that pissing off many precious little snowflakes, because Afrikaans was, of course, the language of apartheid, not to mention the single biggest cause of the 1976 student riots across the country. However, Afrikaans is also a creole, an entirely new language (albeit the bastard lovechild of mostly Flemish, English, German and French), not only unique to SA, but probably even more indigenous to SA than the Nguni languages that migrated down from north of the Limpopo. Outside of the Koi San languages, there’s no other language here that can claim to be truly South African in origin, except the creole used on the mines, Fanagalo. Does it need a monument? Hell, there’s a statue to the guy who invented Esperanto, and how many people speak that?
What about monuments to Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco de Gama? Much like Columbus they were awful, awful men in the “kill, rape, pillage, take slaves, whenever we land, on our way to find the Indies” kind of way. But at least they didn’t introduce syphilis to Europe. (Just remember – if you get the clap on Columbus Day, it’s totally his fault.) Yes, it’s silly to say they discovered South Africa – as if it had never been there before – but their voyages opened up a whole new world for Europe, and that makes them an integral part, not just of South African history, but of world history. It would be a damning indictment of our culture if, a few years from now, we had no idea who the first European was to round the Cape of Good Hope on his way to India, purely because he was European. But if you do want to go down that route, you’d better change the “Natal” in “KwaZulu-Natal,” because that evil bastard de Gama named it.
There are many, many more – the Bloemfontein Women’s Memorial commemorating those who died in the British concentration camps of the Boer war, as well as Emily Hobhouse, who worked to make conditions better. Now there’s a quandary – is a statue dedicated to those who died resisting the colonial powers, still an oppressive colonial symbol, just because most of those who died in the camps happened not to be black? Or Jock of the Bushveld? Good grief, that book spouted the most colonial derring-do since “Biggles Shoots Darkies in Bongo-Bongoland.” Nothing would make me feel more like an oppressed mass than a little bronze Staffie. I’m not sure if she has a statue, but there’s little Rachel de Beer, who froze to death, after stuffing her brother into a termite mound and covering him with her own clothes, so he could survive. That kind of colonialist oppression just makes you want to crack open a sewerage dump, right?
But here’s a more interesting tack – war memorials. Should the Long Tom Pass be renamed, because Long Tom was the name of the guns the Boers used in the war against the Brits? Or is that ok, because it was the locals fighting the colonials. Should Spion Kop and Majuba Hill, where the British were badly bloodied by the Boers (again, locals beating colonialists) be commemorated, or are they unclean, because the Boers did it? What about Isandlwana, where the Zulu army slaughtered the Brits? That MUST be good. But then, just down the road, and also intrinsically linked to Isandlwana, you get Rorke’s Drift, probably one of the most legendary British victories ever, although this time the Zulus were on the receiving end, so that can’t be good, right. Can you have one without the other? That would be like keeping Gettysburg, but removing all the battlefield memorials where the Confederates won.
Let’s look at a more controversial one – if it hasn’t been stolen for scrap metal yet – the Blood River memorial. Again, a little history, a party of 400 Trekkers fought off a large Zulu Army of around 10,000, leaving the waters of a nearby river running red with blood. Before the battle, they’d made a pact with God, saying that if they won, they’d dedicate the land to Him. Oh sure, I can easily see how this would have people dressed in sackcloth and ashes just at the thought of a monument to that. But – and here’s where history comes into it. That covenant with God, basically formed the ideological framework for the National Party’s policies – God had given them the land, it was their right to own it. (Of course, I believe that as much as I believe Israel belongs to the Jews alone, because God said so.) Suddenly, in the broader context of South African history, that monument becomes relevant. If you’re teaching history correctly, of course. You can point to that and say “Forget Verwoerd. There. That place. On Dec 16th, 1838, the seed of apartheid was planted.” Imagine the intellectual debate that could grow from that? But, no, that will never happen.
Ah, to hell with it, let’s just scrap the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while we’re at it. After all, South Africa was just another colonial lackey fighting first the Kaiser and then Hitler, back then.
I’m sure somewhere there’s political science student weeping miserably, scooping his own shit into a bag, having just had his stroll around Zoo Lake ruined by all those dead soldiers reminding him of just how oppressed he is.
And he’s outraged!
It’s sad that we live in a beautiful country, with so much potential, but besides Mandela and good old Bish Tutu, who deserves a statue on every street corner IMHO, has absolutely no legacy of its own to build and be proud of. Only a corrupt government, a collapsing infrastructure and a Post Office that can’t send mail overseas. (Thanks, apartheid!) But it’s a 100-year-old statue that has you protesting?
Now I’m outraged!