Cecil Rhodes quite simply had to go
Monuments are not just architectural pieces, they also hold symbolic power projecting both the foundation values of the State and consent of its people, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.
Johannesburg - ‘Why now”, is the question repeatedly asked as the monuments of the ancien régime are brought down by popular fury. Whilst seeming straightforward, the question itself has a double meaning.
It betrays surprise at the very fall of the statues, whilst also suggesting that there was a pre-determined date by which the statues will be, or should have been, removed.
And, the answer lies in the inverse question: “Why not now?”
The monuments are falling exactly at the time when they ought to. They’re being toppled by the sheer force of the tension between our foundational values as a country, on the one hand, and their meaning, on the other.
Monuments are not architectural pieces. They hold symbolical power, projecting the foundational values and authority of the State.
What I mean, therefore, is that monuments serve a legitimising role in society. They cultivate popular acceptance and consent to the authority of the State.
Consent derives from identification with the State. This implies that people have to embrace the values espoused by the State.
Monuments are therefore a constant, public reminder of the foundational values of the State and those in power.
Beyond the intellectual resonance, founding-leaders have also tended to appeal to the emotive side of people. Iconic leaders are not memorialised simply because they may be in power at the time, but also because some enjoy popular adoration arising from heroic exploits.
Such heroic figures are then presented as the embodiment of the new state. Statues are then installed to keep the “connection” with the people. Popular affection for the leader is transferred to the state.
Ancient monarchs began the practice and the contemporary democratic republics have perfected it. Colonial and apartheid South Africa were no exception. They followed a similar route as their predecessors, mimicking the same pattern as elsewhere in the world.
British colonialists built monuments and named public spaces honouring their royalty and military conquerors. Their monuments are still abound and there's hardly a town in this country without an imposed name. Apartheid ideologues, also keen to legitimise their newly found authority, followed from 1948 onwards.
The surge in Afrikaner monuments, therefore, signified the change of political order.
None made this connection any clearer in recent history than the democratic transitions that followed the fall of the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1980s. Statues of totalitarian leaders suffered the same fate as the political order they had built through tyranny. They were all toppled.
And, their removal was not necessary orchestrated by officialdom. In most cases, it was spontaneous, sparked by public rage against what those leaders represented. And, most significantly, their symbolism stood in contrast to the democratic and human-right values that underpinned the new political order.
What became of the removed statues, however, differed one country to another. In Russia the toppled statues experienced a revival in popularity. Albeit tucked away, from the glare of the public, into some park, the statues attracted tourists.
Because of that attention, with its promise of financial gain, the authorities took a renewed interest in them. Some even received a face-lift and all were placed in a park that came to be known as “the Park of Art”, which some called the “The Park of Totalitarian Art”.
In other former Soviet lands, the post-removal life of the statues panned out differently. They didn't attract the same level of interest as in Russia. Locals and tourists alike couldn't be bothered with the memory of the repressive figures.
They’ve pretty much been neglected, but not entirely destroyed, no longer on prominent public display.
The on-going debate on statues in this country, therefore, should be contextualised.
It cannot take place as if we're a people ignorant of the purpose of statues, with neither history nor memory. Nor should we pretend that South Africa has evolved outside of global history.
To denounce protest against statues of the past regime, purely because of the methods employed, is a cunning way of perpetuating oppressive iconography.
Instead of adopting pseudo-moral postures, we should be asking: why are these statues still standing? Clearly, they no longer serve the purpose for which they were built.
The political order they were intended to bolster no longer exists. And, so they too must fall, just as they have in the rest of the civilised world. What of the claim that toppling these statues is an attempt at erasing certain parts of our history?
This point is downright unconvincing.
Does anyone out there really believe that removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its prominent display at the University of Cape Town will erase him from South African history? Seriously?
Let's stop faking an injury and preserve our history and heritage as the rest of the civilised world does.
Public spaces are for the celebration of foundational values and iconic figures. This is preservation of heritage. That’s how nation-states build public consciousness. As for history, it doesn’t die just because it is not monumentalised.
It lives on through displays in museums, the written word, art exhibitions and the curriculum at schools.
If any of these were censored, then the outcry about erasure of history would be more than justified.
Whatever our individual feelings, I fail to see how these statues will remain standing beyond today.
For them to remain standing one must answer the question: what purpose does a statue that evokes horror serve in a new nation striving towards reconciliation?
It is hard to defend public display of repressive figures, and not appear as a racial supremacist.
In fact those who now stand in guard at Paul Kruger's statue in Pretoria are right-wing groups.
There’s nothing noble about these people.
They reject the foundational values of our new republic and yearn for the bygone age of racial supremacy.
Nor can officialdom defend iconography that resents its very being. One can forgive their ambivalence towards this anomaly.
Reconciliation created tolerance for a number of absurdities.
Statues of Bantustan leaders were removed, for instance, but their white counter-parts remain.
Yet, they were equally repressive. Terror Lekota, acting then as Premier of the Free State Province, is probably the only government leader that toppled a statue of an apartheid figure.
The statue was of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of the monstrosity that was apartheid, then installed in front of the building housing the provincial legislature.
Lekota couldn’t bear the experience of being greeted every morning by Verwoerd’s memory.
When racial supremacists stormed his office in protest, he unleashed his disgust upon them and what they represented, then threw them out of his office.
Of course, removal of statues is not the end-goal. It is part of an ongoing project towards transforming our society, to make it humane for black people.
Rhodes’ fall, and many more that shall follow, simply add impetus to our collective endeavour to realise the dream of a just and non-racial society.
More than just statues will fall if our society remains unhealed of its wounds.
* Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at MISTRA.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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