Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
9 May 2011

Dancing on the grave of apartheid

News that the DA-run municipality of Midvaal had removed a statue of former apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd after the ANC had pointed to the statue as evidence that the DA was an apartheid-loving party, made me think about the ways in which we deal with the physical and symbolic manifestations of colonialism and white domination in our democracy.

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the ANC complaint seemed rather opportunistic as the party had not removed the statue when it was in control of the Midvaal municipality. Let us also not comment on the curious manner in which the statue was removed in the dead of night by a man only identified as “Piet”.

Let us instead focus on the broader issue relating to the manner in which we deal with this symbolic aspects of our past, our present and our future. All over South Africa rivers, mountains, towns, streets and squares are still called by the names given to them by those who colonised the country. Driving over another Black river, past another Landsdown, over another Retiefskop, one is reminded of the fact that for many of those who arrived in South Africa from Europe, the people who originally lived here and named these places before the arrival of the colonists were at best invisible and at worst less than fully human.

One also finds statues, museums and monuments which celebrate not only the language and culture of the colonists but also the very racial domination which subjugated the majority of South Africans.

Obviously, to leave everything as it was in 1994 is not tenable. The vast majority of South Africans do not want to honour HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, Jan Smuts and Jopie Fourie, DF Malan and Piet Retief. Renaming some towns, streets, mountains and rivers therefore seems advisable and even laudable. It is also necessary to decide how to deal with the many monuments and museums erected in years gone by in memory of some or other aspect of colonialism or apartheid. Surprisingly some people seem to feel rather strongly about the need to keep things exactly as they are and resit any form of symbolic adjustment that would allow for changes to the names we give to things in our world, better to reflect the diversity of the people who live in our country.

I am not sure whether this resistance to any kind of change is born out of sheer arrogance that sometimes comes with a white skin, or whether it speaks of other – as yet unmentionable and unexamined – fears and worries. I am sure those who are opposed to any kind of change represent only a very small minority, so we can leave their weird anxieties aside for the moment.

It is not very interesting or relevant to ask whether there should be changes to the world around us, better to reflect the diversity of cultures, languages and races in South Africa. Far more interesting and relevant is to ask how this should be done.

One way to deal with this problem is to try and erase the colonial past completely and to impose a new rather self-serving and distorted version of our history on all South Africans by renaming everything after the heroes of the political party who happens to have won the last few elections. This is always a tempting option. After all, as George Orwell wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

This kind of wholesale rewriting of history is not very helpful or wise as it seems to reflect a mirror image of the way in which arrogant colonialists dealt with their surroundings. One version of the past is then held up as the only version of the past – which is both untrue and politically self-serving.

Another option is to pretend that we have no past and to rename everything after bland and uncontroversial things like flowers and trees and to remove all traces of the memorials and monuments of the past regime and not to create new memorials for a new world. This approach calls for a kind of moral, cultural and political amnesia, which would in effect rob us of part of our identity as South Africans. In any case, this approach would not satisfy too many people.

A third option is to be a bit more creative and to play with the often absurd, shocking, contradictory, delightful and moving aspects of our past and of the ways we are grappling with how to deal with our different perceptions of ourselves, our pasts and our futures. Sometimes such attempts will not be very successful. I mean, what can be more absurd than to drive past the Mandela-Rhodes building in Cape Town. These people must have a rather perverse sense of humour: commemorating the arch imperialist, racist and colonialist in the same breath as the father of our nation.

But sometimes the weird juxtapositions can work wonderfully. This usually happens when complexity and nuance wins out over slogans and ideological certainties and platitudes. Where there is a willingness to remember the horrid aspects of our past in an open, honest and inclusive manner – to remember without erasing, to memorialise without monumentalising – the effects can be rather startling.

Where the version of our past held up by the white minority at the time as the only and official version of our history is not completely erased, but overlaid with other versions of our past that commemorate the struggle against oppression, where the lives of ordinary (previously invisible) human beings are remembered, where memorials are living testomonies to our people, where monuments and memorails excavate the histories that were so successfully erased by the colonial rulers, then the names and memories create a complex tapestry that reflect the complicated nature of our society.

On a recent visit to Freedom Park, I was deeply moved when I read the inclusive list of names of all those who had fallen in the name of a struggle and then looked up and spotted the Voortrekker Monument, commemorating a very different and more problematic kind of past. That is where we are coming from, I thought, looking at the Voortrekker monument, and let us not forget that. But this is the way we really want to be, I thought as I quietly wandered around Freedom Park.

Of course, when it comes to statues the problem is rather daunting. If we remove all the statues that commemorate colonialism and apartheid we would be erasing an aspect of our past and would be pretending it never happened. Cecil John Rhodes, Queen Victoria and all those ugly busts of Prime Ministers will have to be carted away and melted down for scrap metal. How will we be able to remember not to repeat the mistakes of the past if we have erased it? But if we leave every statue of Verwoerd and his cronies in place, are we not saying that we find it quite normal and acceptable that this man should be honoured and remembered – even in a democratic South Africa?

Perhaps we can deal with this issue on a case by case basis. But where we decide to remove a statue, I would plead that the statue should NOT be locked up somewhere in a cellar. Perhaps, following the example of the Hungarians after the fall of communism, we could create an apartheid cemetery where all these statues could be taken and placed in their proper context.

Imagine a vast park at the Voortrekker monument littered with busts of DF Malan, HF Verwoerd, Louis and PW Botha, Jan Smuts, JBM Hertzog and the like along with other statues commemorating the Groot Trek and other parts of our dubious pasts. One could attach informative signs to each statue with information about the original place where the statue was erected and something about the person commemorated so that we can remind ourselves what bizarre and oppressive place South Africa used to be.

I am sure the Freedom Front Plus would not like my solution, but I for one would love to visit such an apartheid graveyard at the Voortrekker Monument. Imagine, one could have a rave or a fabulous queer fancy dress party or a rock concert there between those statues. We would all be dancing on the grave of apartheid, so to speak. Now that would be lekker.

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