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Statues, Names, Inconsistencies and Life’s Uncertainties

By Gerhard Papenfus

More than a century after his death, Cecil John Rhodes finds ‘himself’ in a crate, with a plastic bag wrapped around his face. He is, of course, not at all bothered by this.

This whole saga reminds me of the fact that I may also still have a few bones to pick with Mr Rhodes for what he, directly or indirectly, did to my ancestors a hundred-and-fourteen years ago.  I chose not to spend any energy on this though; it will not change anything.  I am, however, concerned about the underlying attitudes behind the demand to take down his statue.

Destroying that which was established by those before you is an age old type of behaviour by ‘conquerors’; first drive out the enemy, then destroy what has been established – good or bad.  This behaviour is nothing but a misguided form of celebration and revenge. The Mongols, the Greeks and the Romans – they all did this.  The Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria are no different.  Now this is also taking place in South Africa, however, surreptitiously and under other pretences.

In certain cases these destructive conquerors eventually succeed in becoming prospering nations; unfortunately, most do not manage to do that, in which case the societies involved remain ruined forever and their countries become areas of desolation.  Therefore, before you destroy, make sure that you have the ability to rebuild.

So, after Cecil John Rhodes’ statue has been removed, followed by the statues of perhaps King George V at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Queen Victoria at Parliament, and then Paul Kruger in Church Square in Pretoria, and more; and perhaps after convincing Mugabe to remove David Livingstone’s statue from Victoria Falls and to exhume Rhodes’ bones from his grave on Malindidzimu (the hill where he would stand in wonder of the landscape in front of him and made reference to the “… peacefulness of it all; the chaotic grandeur of it; it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we are”), and after every street and school has been renamed and the history books have been rewritten – then what?

Why only remove Rhodes’ statue?  Why still make use of the buildings on campus and the scholarships?  Why accept anything from Rhodes?  Why not make the sacrifices where it matters, where it is felt personally?  Why only remove the symbols?

After the victor’s euphoria of proving a point and settling a score has worn off, what happens then?  Will that be enough?  Will the focus then shift to reconciliation, nation building, education and overall service delivery?  Will we then create jobs, address poverty, grow the economy?  I don’t think so. The spirit of revenge does not carry in itself the ability to build; only to destroy.

A vengeful spirit has an endless appetite for creating new issues; it won’t be satisfied with only the removal of a statue.  Unless there is a supernatural change of heart, a bad attitude (originating from self-pity, bitterness, revenge, not taking personal responsibility, blaming others, living a life in the rear-view mirror) can never be satisfied; it will always end in disaster.

History is unpredictable; it also has a strange way of repeating itself.  Empires and kingdoms come and go; even civilisations cease to exist.  Statues are erected and then, sooner or later, demolished.  Can it be that, one day, the statue of the late President Nelson Mandela and that of Walter and Albertina Sisulu will be taken down for their policies of non-racialism and conciliation?  Street names will be changed again; and again; and again.  This is all so pointless.

No one is perfect.  There is so much bad in the best of us; there is so much good in the worst of us.  Cecil John Rhodes was just another imperfect human being.  His sin, I assume, was that he was an ‘imperialist, an oppressor and a racist’, bringing with it all kinds of evils.  But was ‘racist’ then worse than ‘racist’ now, or being a ‘nationalist’ – of the pre or the post ’94 type?  Why is the current pilfering of our resources and taxes different from Rhodes’ imperialism?  It was inspired by greed then, it is inspired by greed now; the way it plays out can never be pretty.

We bring down his statue for his ‘wrongs’, whilst at the same time enjoying that which he got ‘right’ and tolerate exactly the same evils in our society.  We are blind to this, pathetically exposed in our hopelessness, our inability to carve out a new future.  So let’s blame Rhodes; that will make us feel better, if only for a while.  Then we will have to find new culprits; new excuses.  This is all so unproductive and self-defeating.

Why do we refuse to learn from our past?  The more we try to deny, twist and hide the past, the more we repeat it.  We make the mistake by thinking that humans with different skin colours are inclined to make mistakes of a different kind.  In the meantime, we are exactly the same.  Given the opportunity, left to our own vices, we make ourselves guilty of the same sins.  So, if we do not learn from our past (from people like Rhodes), we will repeat those evils.  Yes, we are making exactly the same mistakes as the ones we try to demonise.  Humans are humans; skin colour does not determine the content of the heart.

Let’s be frank; our nation faces severe challenges.  Those who choose the path of destruction currently drive the agenda, or at least so it appears on the surface.  Fortunately, despite all of this, there are those who are constructively working towards change, and there are the millions of South Africans who face their responsibilities every day; focussing on what is right: serving those around them, raising their children, caring for their families (and extended families), often with extremely limited means, building a future.  I see them walking, often running, to work, some fortunate to drive to work – whilst it is still pitch dark.  This happens throughout South Africa – every day!

These are the true heroes of South Africa.  Statues will never be built in their honour, streets will not be named after them.  Strangely enough, they are also not demanding the demolishing of the existing ones.  It is when you walk amongst these South Africans, seeing how they are cheerfully going about their business, that you are inspired.

Out of the current negativity a new vision can, of course, be born; a vision which might inspire all South Africans, to build a nation on lasting values.  This is the challenge we are facing.

This opinion piece is by Gerhard Papenfus, Chief Executive of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa