South Africa: Time for difficult conversations…
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
It is obvious there are many words we have not yet been spoken to each other, as South Africans, and many of our wounds have not yet healed.
For almost a month, I’ve been reporting on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, which culminated in this week’s removal of the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes.
For many of us, this campaign has given us a chance to speak and hear those many unspoken words and somehow try to address the wounds of our ugly past.
It takes me back to an evening last September, on Church Square in central Cape Town, where a debate about our collective history was discussed.
As a person of colour with an ancestry that includes a slave history, I questioned aloud how the city of my birth offers hardly any public memorialisation of that history. The District Six Museum does an annual slave walk, but that’s it.
On the other hand, a ten-minute walk from the country’s Parliament building on Plein Street, past Church Square and through the city’s Company’s Garden shows me a handful of colonial and apartheid era statues of men who shaped the ugly history of our beautiful country.
The history of my people, whose contribution is very much part of this history, is nowhere visible in this city. This is the same for the city’s black African population.
And while the country has been exported globally as a Rainbow Nation and melting pot of diversity, locals have complained often that Cape Town remains a hotbed of racism.
We still see the after effects of segregation in the way this city’s folk socialise. One could live for weeks on end in your own ghetto in this city without having any meaningful interaction with someone from another race group.
The Rainbow Nation still eludes us. So when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign grew, and the statue came down this week, those many unspoken words made its way into our daily conversation and pure hate speech appeared all over the Internet.
Evident on Thursday at the University of Cape Town were two striking conversation points: black pain and black anger.
Rhodes Must Fall campaigner Busisiwe Nxumalo summed up the first sentiment. She had stood on the platform from where the Rhodes statue was removed that afternoon and held up a poster that read ‘Black pain is not negotiable’.
She intrigued me. And during a conversation, she talked about what black pain means to her.
“Black people were never given a chance to air their views,” she said.
“We had colonisation then apartheid. Then we were told we have a Rainbow Nation, we need to forget everything, and move on.
“Black pain is a space where you can let out everything. The TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) was just covering wounds with a plaster. We need to address this black pain and then move forward.”
I looked at the world from her perspective. And imagined the insecurity that must come from being the subject of an institutional hierarchy coupled with racial hierarchy. It cannot be an easy world to navigate and feel at ease with.
And it is true: we never had a chance to address our pain. Many would prefer to just forget and move on. This is possible in an ideal world, where we do not ask questions about our history and how its effects are still entrenched.
During an online discussion on my Facebook profile, a friend commented, “We are impatient. We cannot wait anymore”. This was in reference to what seems to be the slow pace of transformation from apartheid era thinking to a consciousness of inclusivity and diversity.
Some of my white friends felt their history was being erased as statues of white men from the colonial and apartheid era around the country are being vandalised. Well-known white South Africans have defended the statues and a worker’s union with white interests at heart has appealed to a court to stop the vandalisation of statues.
Meanwhile statues continue to be vandalised as a means of registering the discomfort that black South Africans feel towards colonial and apartheid symbols.
In Cape Town, the statue of Louis Botha outside Parliament was last week also vandalised as a form of protest against what some feel is a public and problematic reminder of our past.
Black anger on the other hand, particularly evident on Thursday, has also indicated there is a need to address deep-seated hatred between black and white South Africans.
While waiting for the statue to be removed, members of political parties chanted the slogan, “one settler, one bullet”.
In a transitional society, where we are aiming to erase racism, this is problematic because it stirs tension based on race. It is violent language, and violence usually starts with words.
I made my way on to the back of the truck that was transporting the Rhodes statue off UCT campus. By then, members of the Economic Freedom Front political party had splashed red paint over the statue.
The anger on the back of that truck turned violent. Young people beat the statue with a belt and sticks, while swearing at it.
They seemed to be taking revenge for all the savagery that Rhodes and his ilk had perpetuated during the colonial period.
It is an anger that we need to understand though before we can move on.
One could so easily appear to be condescending when talking about this. One could be accused of not understanding black anger. One could be accused of not being black enough to know the pain black Africans have endured.
This is the exclusivity of pain that people talk about when wanting to dismiss any criticism. It is such a turn-off towards any meaningful reconciliation.
While still on the truck, EFF members tried to push the statue to the ground. Some of them jumped off the truck and stopped it. I was still on the truck and EFF members on it expressed uncontrollable anger. They had only one mission: to push the statue off the truck.
UCT students stopped them, and later accused political parties of wanting to hijack their campaign victory.
We made our way back to the spot where Rhodes had looked over the UCT rugby fields for decades.
It will likely be the scene of many more protests and debates, as UCT marches forth on a path of transformation and inclusivity. I’ll be watching that space.