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Poo throwers hit the target, missed the point

Thursday marked one month since Chumani Maxwele's radical act. File picture: David Ritchie

Thursday marked one month since Chumani Maxwele's radical act. File picture: David Ritchie

Published Apr 5, 2015

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Letepe Maisela’s resolute belief is that it is important for SA to retain most statues and symbols of their past oppression.

“The Revolution will not be televised

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The Revolution will be no re-run brothers

The Revolution will be live…”

 

Apologies for quoting Gil Scott-Heron, out of context. The African-American protest poet from the 1970s died on May 27, 2011. But I beg your pardon Mr Scott-Heron, our new South African Revolution is televised.

In recent weeks from the comfort of my TV lounge, I saw live on television University of Cape Town students throwing human waste at the statue of a former coloniser and industrialist Cecil John Rhodes in a revolutionary mode.

I watched in utter disbelief when the protesters boldly faced TV cameras, stating the cause of their anger with a stationary statue of some ancestor who arrived here from Great Britain in 1870.

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What actually galled these students and their cheerleaders I could not exactly comprehend, but from what I gathered from their incessant rantings they were tired of being stared down at through the condescending eyes of this statue of South Africa’s famous coloniser.

That is the one who even had two southern African countries named after him, namely Zambia and Zimbabwe. To the uninitiated they were once known respectively as Northern and Southern Rhodesia.

The protesting students clearly perceive this statue in Cape Town’s premier learning institution as a sadistic reminder of their colonial past and salt in the wounds caused by their historical oppression by those of Cecil John Rhodes’s ilk.

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This 20 years after our country was finally liberated.

My initial response was to dismiss the poo-throwers’ antics as a rather insipid gesture by post-apartheid revolutionaries, whose main form of suffering is having to endure Eskom’s load shedding. I couldn’t but marvel at their bravado in facing the TV cameras gallantly without worry or trepidation.

After searching for the decent rationale for this behaviour, I reached a simple conclusion that perhaps all this is done for the cameras to liven up our evening news.

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I watched in awe, marvelling at this modern form of protest laid bare on the TV screen. Nevertheless I could not help wondering and imagining what could have happened back in 1976 had we had marched to Pretoria and thrown kak over the statue of Oom Paul Kruger at the Church Square. But I digress.

What mostly concerns me are the responses and support they received from quite unexpected quarters. To my shock and amazement, word of support and encouragement came from a sector of UCT academicians and our Ministry of Higher Education who failed to see anything untoward regarding the students’ smelly form of protest.

The latter even issued a statement that the Cecil John Rhodes statue “belonged to the museum”. And I was starting to believe that nobody could out-radicalise the EFF.

While pondering these shocking developments, I caught an odour, pardon the pun, of a radio talk show where they interviewed a popular news columnist who declared that he was traumatised by history, having been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in the past.

This had enabled him to study at the Ivy-League Oxford University in the UK, Cecil John Rhodes country.

In an act of self-cleansing that could have impressed many a sangoma, he laid bare his conflicted state of mind. I could not exactly understand his rationale but it varied between not having any regrets for accepting the ‘bloodied’ award then, while simultaneously denying complicity and regretting that he was perceived as a Rhodes Scholar which now carried a politically incorrect baggage.

While I understand the right to protest, I must add it also needs to be guided by certain rules and regulations to maintain a certain dignity and decorum.

This will ensure that protest does not overspill into the area of public violence and deteriorate into incidents like looting.

 

That is why any form of protest, including over service delivery that crosses the line and escalates into violence and the burning of public amenities, needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. The right to protest also carries the responsibility to exercise that right with consideration for others.

I find the UCT debacle simply tasteless and a red herring. For an institution with so many problems regarding transformation and embedded racism, it is amazing that the focus should now be on a simple statue.

I do not imply, in any way, that Cecil John Rhodes was a saint but to take revenge on his immobile caricature in the form of a statue is to take restitution and sanction too far.

It also raises the question of how far this can go once it is sanctioned by general society. To my mind, the removal of the statue will set a dangerous precedent that this country can ill-afford.

Are we now as a nation going to embark on a McCarthy-style of witch-hunt in South Africa? While the former occupied itself with the ferreting out of Communists in the US of the 1940s and 50s, our South African version will scour the countryside looking for and identifying any past symbols of our apartheid oppression.

Precious time and resources are likely to be wasted on this fruitless exercise which definitely will not contribute to reconciliation and social cohesion in the country.

If Rhodes falls at UCT, what next? Already there is talk about changing the name of Rhodes University in Grahamstown and the removal of some Rhodes statues in Kimberley.

Where to from there?

Are we now going to march to Pretoria and uproot Paul Kruger’s statue from Church Square?

And what about the Voortrekker Monument and even the Union Buildings which housed the racist regime from 1910?

 

What about those Houses of Parliament in Cape Town that housed the notorious apartheid regime? Why not? The list could be endless.

I regard all this recent activity as a diversionary tactic to take the nation’s eye from the real problems facing the country.

There is general failure of transformation, not only at UCT but in general society as well.

We cannot grow the economy and reduce high levels of unemployment. We have more serious problems like power failures, escalating crime, racial polarisation and so on.

The question to ask should be what will change in the lives of the students at UCT campus tomorrow when the statue is bulldozed?

Would that seemingly hollow victory offer temporary relief given the more serious problems at UCT such as lack of student funding and the number of black academics?

And last but not least, what concerns me with the UCT statue debacle is the outside world’s perception. This, rightfully or wrongly, might be compared to the Islamic State crusade in the Middle East where they have been on a destructive mission of statues and artefacts from ancient times as in Mosul Central Museum in Iraq, fuelled by their radical ideological belief that these represented idols of pagan worship.

This move is being condemned by the whole world as damage to precious historical heritage. Recently in northern Mali, the Tuareg rebellion was responsible for raiding and gutting the historic manuscripts in the library of the University of Timbuktu.

These manuscripts were not only part of Mali’s heritage but that of the whole of Africa, as they provided credible historical proof that scholarly learning and civilisation on the continent occurred long before the arrival of Europeans.

What is happening at UCT bears a chilling resemblance to these incidents by the Islamic State and the Tuaregs.

My resolute belief is that it is important for South Africa to retain most statues and symbols of their past oppression in full view of the public as they form part of our historical legacy. They also serve to remind and inform ourselves and the world of our past resilience and that, in spite of our past suffering and burden, we emerged as a nation determined to make strides forward proudly as a Rainbow Nation.

That is what makes some of us proudly South African.

 

*Maisela is a management consultant and author of the novel The Empowered Native.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Sunday Independent

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