The timely campaign by students demanding the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its central position on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) raises broader questions about how South Africans should deal with its colonial and Apartheid past, a past that still casts a long shadow over the country. At its heart the campaign challenges some of the (still widely held but often unspoken) assumptions about the past and about its impact on contemporary society.
As I was taking out the rubbish earlier this week, I glanced over the bookshelf at the back door of my flat and noticed a book I had not thought of for more than 30 years. The book is a gushing biography of Apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster, with a picture of Vorster (his red alcoholic nose in full bloom) on the front page. The inscription on the title page states that the book was given to me as the Allied Building Society Prize for best progress in the matric year at Pietersburg Hoërskool in 1981.
I can’t recall that I ever read the book, but I do recall that receiving the prize meant a lot to the timid, insecure boy trying to survive in the macho, all-white, aggressively racist and actively anti-intellectual environment of Pietersburg Hoërskool of 1981.
What struck me as I paged through the yellowed, dusty pages of the book (look, a picture of Vorster taken in 1974 as Chancellor of Stellenbosch University with the all-white and all-male Student Council) was that I never before thought it strange or embarrassing to have been given such a book or to have it sitting on one of my bookshelves.
It is perhaps not that strange that the presence of a hagiography of a thoroughly wicked man like John Vorster on the bookshelf of a supposedly progressive, white, middle aged, Afrikaans-speaking South African like myself went unnoticed for so long.
In contemporary South Africa – with its entrenched patterns of race-based inequality, patriarchal, racial and homophobic prejudice and its oddly contradictory attitudes towards our recent past – the aberrant, the incongruous, the bizarre and the repugnant are often treated as normal or, alternatively, are completely ignored or denied.
For me the value of the campaign of the UCT students – beyond the immediate impact it may have on the pace of transformation at the University – lies in its potential to help us recognise and remember how strange and aberrant daily life in South Africa often is; to help us be more critical about the world we live in; to make us more consistently aware of the history and origins of hegemonic ideas and practices that serve to persuade some of us that the social, intellectual and economic dominance of our former colonisers are natural and self-evidently deserved.
Ultimately, it seems to me the protesters are calling on us to recognise the uncomfortable strangeness of our country, a country hovering halfway between a past from which it cannot escape and a future its citizens are too scared, filled with self-doubt or complacent to re-imagine and recreate in their own image.
The students are reminding us that if we are prepared to recognise the strangeness of our (not so) post-colonial country, if we are prepared to recognise how aberrant and (at the very least) ethically dubious it is that the former oppressors and the previously oppressed live side by side in a country in which many statues that glorify the exploits of the oppressors still have pride of place, we may begin to imagine and build a different society not held hostage by its past.
A continued awareness of the inherent strangeness of our society may help unleash the creativity, originality and energy needed to re-imagine and re-create our world. Being disturbed and unsettled (as opposed to being complacent and self-satisfied) is surely an enemy of mediocrity.
However, because of sheer force of habit, or blinded by our privileged complacency, or forced by the dull repetition of sometimes grinding routines, twenty years after the formal legal end of Apartheid too many of us fail to always notice the million little (and not so little) ways in which our world is still dominated by the values, attitudes, beliefs, practices, language, culture and intellectual judgements of those who colonised the country and oppressed and exploited the majority of its people for their material and cultural benefit.
The fact is that the lives of all of us who live in South Africa (regardless of race) remain – to some degree – entangled with our colonial and Apartheid past. None of us can escape the lingering consequences of the colonial conquest of South Africa or the rest of the continent. Nor can we honestly claim that if Apartheid never happened our lives would have been exactly the same as they are today.
As the campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes makes clear, we are entangled with the past partly because it still physically shapes and economically structures the environment we live.
For those who care to look, and for those whose circumstances and experiences make it impossible to look away, evidence of the strange and aberrant nature of our physical world abounds.
We all live in a country created and named by the colonisers and many of us live in towns or cities whose names glorify those who dispossessed and oppressed the majority of citizens. The geography of every city and town in South Africa carries the scars of our divided past. Every town and city in South Africa is essentially still organised according to the principles of Apartheid town planning.
Many of our government offices, grand court buildings and university halls reflect the architectural traditions and tastes of a colonial culture that those who controlled these institutions until 1994 so fervently emulated and adored.
But we are also entangled with the past because everything all of us assumed, everything we believed, everything drummed into our collective consciousness over 350 years of colonial conquest and racial domination did not evaporate into thin in in 1994.
At our Universities the Apartheid-era curriculum was not abolished when the old South African flag was formally lowered for the last time. Even if the regime had been violently overthrown in a revolution it would in any case have been impossible to do so.
For example, for understandable pragmatic reasons we did not ditch the common law which is a prime product of colonial conquest, serving to legitimise “white” rule with the fig leaf of legality. Today in most law schools in South Africa the common law rules are still more or less taught uncritically, without asking whether a rule advances any interests based on class, race and gender. Few lecturers analyse common law rules in terms of the ideological work they perform, or ask whether such rules help to perpetuate the unjust economic status quo or to protect the powerful and advance their economic interests.
Many academics and university administrators still believe our places of learning and research should uncritically imitate institutions like Oxford and Cambridge – no matter how different our social and economic context may be and no matter how distinct the intellectual demands on our graduates in South Africa may be. Oxford and Cambridge are by all accounts excellent – if exceedingly conservative – academic institutions, but they operate in an environment radically different from our own.
If we study or teach at a University in South Africa most of us do so in English, the language of those who colonised our country. Whether we like it or not, at our universities we are all deeply entangled with the values, the systems of knowledge, the intellectual traditions and habits of thought that originated in Western Europe.
Given the social and economic dominance of Western powers in the globalised capitalist world, it is impossible to escape such influences. It would almost certainly be foolhardy to pretend to do so.
I am therefore not arguing that it is possible or desirable to end the entanglement with our colonial and Apartheid past. Just as you cannot take milk out of a cup of coffee once it has been poured, you cannot return South Africa to a mythical, idealised place before colonialism or Apartheid.
Instead I am arguing that the campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes may help us to acknowledge the inherent strangeness of our post-Apartheid world and to engage with this strangeness in an honest and continuous way. It calls on us to reflect critically on what can be done to make our world less strange; what can be done to address – both materially and symbolically – the corrosive effects of colonialism and Apartheid. Although we cannot entirely disentangle ourselves from our past, we can take steps to change the world we live in for the betterment of all.
In a university context it calls on us to rethink our curriculum, to rethink what we teach and how we teach it. It demands of us to be smarter and more creative, more aware of the context within which we teach, learn and do research; to ask hard questions about the inherent mediocrity that results from uncritically trying to imitate the modes of thought developed elsewhere in response to different problems.
But to do so we first have to admit that it is not possible to draw a sharp line between the Apartheid past and the post-Apartheid present. We have to acknowledge that this continued entanglement with our colonial and Apartheid past is profoundly disturbing and ethically fraught – especially for those of us who have so handsomely benefited from the oppression of others. And, of course, we have to be decent and honest enough to recognise the utter repugnance of a university giving pride of place to a statue that celebrates the achievements of an oppressor. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
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