April 10 2015, Peter Fabricius
South Africa itself is a colonial construct. Should we deface the country, then, to express our rage? asks Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria – Is it really possible that it took Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – the arch-enemy of colonialism, or should that be neo-colonialism? – to tell South Africans obsessed with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes to get a life?
That at least seemed to be the thrust of his remarks at a joint press conference with President Jacob Zuma after their official meeting during Mugabe’s state visit this week.
But the 91-year-old made his remarks in such a long and rambling speech that it was difficult to be certain what point he was trying to make.
Mugabe drily noted that South Africa had “forwarded” the corpse of Rhodes – after he had died in his seaside cottage at Muizenberg near Cape Town in 1902 – to what was then of course still Rhodesia because the “strange man” wanted to be buried in his beloved Matopos Hills.
“We have his corpse and you have his statue. What do you want us to do with him? Dig him up?”
That might release his spirit, Mugabe quipped – with the implication that the arch-colonialist would come back to haunt those who had not let him RIP.
He then added that, although Zimbabweans couldn’t tell South Africa what to do about Rhodes, he and his people felt “we need to leave him down there” because “that’s history”.
He clearly had in mind the periodic fits of agitation, like we are seeing here right now – by radical Zanu-PF youth and others to disinter the bones of Rhodes and return them to Britain (or perhaps South Africa). Mugabe opposed those moves then too.
And this week too, Parliament’s portfolio committee on arts and culture expressed its concern about the ongoing defacing of colonial era monuments around the country.
“These acts of criminality are in no way adding value to the critical dialogue that needs to happen … all citizens – irrespective of race, culture or creed – must constructively engage each other on the best ways to learn from the past while creating a joint future for everyone in the great tradition of Mandela, added Xoliswa Tom, the chairwoman of the committee and an ANC member.
The committee warned that “defacing these statues is merely the spark that will ignite further polarisation among South Africans … while the country’s dark history cannot be celebrated, the nation can continue to reflect on the past so that the country is aware of where it comes from”.
Those were sensible words. For the frenzy about Rhodes has indeed obscured historical perspective. That perspective would reveal the obvious that, the statue of Rhodes, the University of Cape Town where it now stands and the seat of government in the Union Buildings in Pretoria are all colonial constructs.
So, in a real sense, is the country itself. There would clearly be no South Africa were it not for its original four constituent parts, the British colonies of the Cape, Natal and the recent colonial conquests of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which were merged by Britain to form the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Should we deface the country itself, then, to express our rage at its colonial roots?
That is not to say that Rhodes should necessarily have remained in his current prominent position. I guess no white person should presume to fully comprehend how a victim of colonialism and apartheid might feel about the honouring of such a person in that way.
Is it to them like a statue of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin would be to the millions of victims of their mammoth atrocities?
Or are these just post-revolution revolutionaries who didn’t participate in the struggle anyway and are dishonouring the Mandela heritage of reconciliation?
So a debate is in order, as the portfolio committee says. But not a mass hysteria of defacing symbols which are – rightly or wrongly – dear to some member of the community. That just brings out the worst in them too.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Media’s foreign editor.