Our democracy was a triumphant moment. It was our moment, a moment of our choosing, and more importantly it was our victory. This moment was not just a victory for black South Africans but it was the moment of hope, possibility and freedom for all South Africans.
The design of Apartheid, slavery, oppression and colonialism created a normative structure of our society that was ‘white’. Democracy did not succeed in removing that normative structure, and its presence is still felt today. We still continue to struggle against it in our attempts to transform our country.
We struggle to have the transformation conversation and when we do, many people become frenzied. This frenzy often involves a history lesson (their version), a lecture about corruption, President Jacob Zuma, or how our own ‘imagination’ is to blame for everything that is wrong with South Africa. We are simply told to, “Move on, it’s been more than 20 years already”.
We have a long way to go before we are able to have the conversation and for people to have the maturity to accept that the entire system of Apartheid was done for the benefit (of white South Africans), it was done in their name (and by their elected government).
The week of 9 March 2015 has been quite an eventful one for the University of Cape Town. We saw the calls by students for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that overlooks the university’s rugby fields.
These issues are layered, they are complex but these issues are our story and we need to begin to take responsibility for it. We need to begin to shift our approach; we need to realise that expediency is not the solution, but rather that maturity, our collective efforts and a dedicated commitment to changing that normative structure must be our goal.
In 1948, Jan Smuts, then prime minister of the Union of South Africa, wrote the Preamble to the United Nations Charter. Smuts was in part responsible for drafting the words “regain faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women” into the UN Charter.
This was quite odd as Smuts was a supporter of racial segregation based on separate territories for blacks and whites. However, by the 1948 national elections (an election that he and the United Party lost to the Herenigde Nasionale Party, due to a quirk in the electoral system) he supported a policy of initiating some measures of integration.
Smuts may have had an evolved approach in the 1948 election; but we cannot adopt this cautious, business as usual approach. There is too much at stake, with growing anxiety across the country and staggering inequality.
The issue at UCT is not simply about Rhodes but rather it is the affirmation by South Africans that this country belongs to all who live in it and we have a responsibility collectively to challenge each other and to craft a different way.
We were able to do this before. We must never forget our own capacity to effect change. We were able to do so 60 years ago. Without the benefit of democracy or modern technology, we were able to mobilise thousands of South Africans to contribute to the Freedom Charter.
In 1955, the Freedom Charter issue a clarion call that “The People Shall Govern!” and that call is an underlying ideal contained in the 1996 South African Constitution, which states in the Preamble that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.
For as long as we are unwilling to accept or acknowledge the pain and harm of Apartheid, we will feel the sting of prejudice and suffering.
For as long as we are unwilling to confront the demons of our past, we will suffer under the yolk of a normative structure that stubbornly refuses to change.
For as long as we continue to sit idly by without speaking truth to power we will have to endure incompetence, corruption and the self-interest of others.
We must rise above this. We must demand more from ourselves and we must not accept the status quo.
The call for the removal of the Rhodes statue is the call by students to reclaim a space and to challenge the business as usual approach. It is also a cathartic mechanism whereby every South African, regardless of race, gender, creed or colour, has the opportunity to confront his or her own preconceived ideas and begin to chart a different path.
It is important for us to claim our history, for us to own that history and to live that history. The Rhodes statue is not simply about removing a statue of a man who owned Table Mountain among many other things (what an unbelievable concept!) but it is about how we co-exist and how we can shape our country.
On Thursday, 12 March we saw Jameson Steps transformed and that conversation was a call not simply for the physical removal of the Rhodes statue but rather it was a “collective student, staff and worker movement mobilising for direct action against the institutional racism of UCT”.
The events on the steps of Jameson Hall, looking down at the Rhodes statue, are not isolated from the broader South African issues. They are not separate to the issues of racism, they are not far removed from the issues of xenophobia or even from the online trolling that takes place. These issues are all interlinked and so is our future.
The question that must be asked is, how do South Africans begin to claim the space that they co-exist in, how do they begin to challenge that normative structure and begin to replace it? The writing is already on the walls. The value system that we must fight for must be about dignity, equality and the unbridled belief that we can carve out a South Africa that really is united in its diversity.
The People must Govern!
May God protect our People.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso. DM
"Each man believes on his experience" ~ Empedocles