It’s a pretty bad time to be a statue in South Africa. If you’re not from here, a quick run-through: at the University of Cape Town, students have successfully petitioned (to put it mildly) the University Council to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes on their campus. Not long after that, a statue of Paul Kruger was vandalised, as well as a memorial for the animals that served and died in the Second South African War.
I haven’t really said much about the saga because I can understand, to some extent, the people on all sides of the argument. I did not attend UCT and I feel no particular loyalty to Rhodes. I don’t feel particular affinity for Kruger, either. And animals are awesome, but the real reason I feel strongly about statues being vandalised is because I believe in history.
I believe in history because I find it fascinating and because of the old boring cliches about learning from the past. I believe that history is so very important and if not for the fact that I don’t like forcing things, I would want all high school students to study history.
And I believe that if we put all these statues in a museum, very few people would ever see them.
History is learned on the streets. I first learned about my family’s history upon a visit to the German Settlers’ Monument in East London. I learned how my ancestors fled in the middle of the night to a harbour nearby because their employers would not let them go. I learned that they had to do hard labour to British farmers for years to pay back their sea fare to South Africa. It is a small part of South African history, but it belongs to all of us (even if you’re not of German descent).
Incidentally, I also first learned about Steve Biko by visiting his statue in the East London city center. I was taught about his brutal treatment by police not far from there, and how he attended a university not far from there, and how the editor of the little city’s newspaper tried and tried to share news of his story.
All of this happened in our little city? I was amazed. And I learned. Oh, I learned.
They say that history is written by the victors. Is that why so many take offense by these statues? Because we are told that we WON the Struggle against Apartheid, but these statues laugh in our faces because they don’t KNOW that they lost, many years later.
I would like to challenge everyone to prove to me that the Struggle heroes to whom we have erected statues had not done bad things, too. If we had to have statues in this country only of people who had never done something terrible to their fellow man, we truly would have no statues left in our streets. And perhaps that would be best, if not for the question: where would our history, herstory, theirstories go?
Because I don’t trust our schools to teach history anymore. Never mind the regular shuffling of syllabi, let’s start with the dismal education. I can’t trust that my kids will learn history in school. And I don’t trust our politicians to teach history (do I even need to elaborate on that one?).
One day when I have kids, I want them to see a statue of say, Paul Kruger, and read: “Farmer. Warrior. Statesman.” And then I want them to ask, “Mom, who was that?” And I want to make them Google the man, and I want them to tell me what ELSE Kruger was, that the statue does not tell them. Yeah, my kids are going to hate me. But I hope they will be informed.
When I traveled to Zambia recently I was surprised about seeing a large statue of David Livingstone at the Victoria Falls. And the city we stayed in was called LIVINGSTONE, for crying out loud. Livingstone was certainly not a pure character, either. But it seems that even in this city that carried his name, he was just an afterthought. Not a hero, and not a villain. Citizens were too busy going about their daily lives to care, it seemed.
A young member of the EFF recently said, on national television, that they want to remove all reminders of the country’s colonial past. Really though? This country IS a reminder of its colonial past. We can try our damndest, but you can’t change what happened. Tearing down statues based on the fact that they remind us of our past is akin to the teenager who burns the love letters of her ex-boyfriend. It may make you feel better but what about tomorrow? It hardly changes tomorrow. South Africans have fought so HARD to conquer colonialism and Apartheid, and I for one don’t ever want to forget that.
Auschwitz still exists and that was one really shitty place. It exists as a reminder. Not all memories are fun. But the past is important, and the only people who disagree with THAT are people who are bitter about having to memorise dates in history class at school (I suck at dates too, don’t worry).
Today, #Rhodeswillfall. I don’t really feel the need to rally a cry against it. The camps for and against have both embarrassed themselves too much for me to want to associate with either of them. But I can’t help asking myself what will happen now. Will black students feel more accepted at UCT and other universities? Will fewer students drop out of university? Will fewer graduates struggle to find jobs?
Will we have more doctors graduating? Will my patients entertain less stigma about HIV and TB? Will my patients have great access to lifesaving treatment?
Will our economy strengthen? Will fewer South Africans of all races leave the country for greener pastures?
I am certain the students of UCT (and the many on social media) feel victorious, but I hope they have a plan forward. Because if they thought that getting a statue to fall was hard, they must know that transforming higher education – and indeed the country – is a much more intricate matter, where slinging faeces and disrupting meetings simply will not do.
And I really, really hope they have been studying for their exams.