Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 12 April 2015

Dear Cecil John Rhodes… Let’s talk frankly

It took long enough to remove Sir Cecil from his perch. Now we’re cleaning up the mess that he left behind. Here are a few choice words we could say to the man as he retreats.

Dear Sir,

Finally a sign of your ego has fallen. Look, if you are sleeping, you have to wake up for this. President Robert Mugabe was here last week, and says we shouldn’t be doing things that could potentially wake you up. But to be fair to you, colonial as you were, you did not instruct anyone to place your statue so prominently at the foot of Table Mountain.

Granted, you walked these shores and left your fair share of damage behind, but frankly, with all your weaknesses, you did not ask anyone to brandish symbols as if your legacy were something to celebrate. I can’t deny, though, that the ghost of your racism hangs thick over the Western Cape, the last colonial outpost left in the continent, if you ask me.

It took a poo protestor to get you lifted! Everyone since your welcome passing has been frankly going about their business as though they had not a care in the world. Look, the last time I studied history closely was when I was in high school in the early eighties, so I can’t claim to know whether your deeds are worse than those of General Louis Botha or Jan Smuts, whose statues remain relatively unbothered. But, as they say, there is no honour amongst thieves.

By the way, blacks, whom you considered savages during your reign, are now in charge of the country, and millions of them are now allowed to cast their votes to elect a government. They have, despite the apparent power they have had for the past 21 years, never bothered much with the implications of having so many statues of colonial masters hoisted in triumphant positions all over the country. They have taken the forgiveness thing a little too far and learned nothing from you, rather emulating Nelson Mandela – that forgiving father of our nation who is probably not on the same side of the Father as you are.

It has not occurred to anyone that, as they changed Verwoerdburg to Centurion, they should also perhaps consider whether a statue of Paul Kruger – who saw blacks as nothing – should remain on Church Street, lording it over the millions who passed that street, going about their daily life in Pretoria. Part of it, of course, was really the confusion about where to draw the line. I mean, the Union Buildings were built to ignore the existence of black people. Afrikaners and the English built it after their truce, as a lasting monument of their peace, while trampling on the rights of millions of blacks who did not matter to them. We simply let Mandela move in when he became president, carried on referring to the Union Buildings, and simply added Mandela’s not-so-handsome statue there, hoping that another chapter of history would help redefine what “union” in that name really meant.

Anyway, we should get back to your statue – which suffered terrible humiliation last week (the scenes of jubilation at your fall, Sir, could only be matched by the joy that the people of Zimbabwe will feel when Mugabe finally goes). It also reminded me of the fall of Saddam Hussein. You, sir, have had such impunity thrust on you that it is unreal that it took so long for someone to give you a taste of your own medicine. You splashed so much malevolence on the face of the earth during your time that I wonder whose bright idea it was to erect your statue at a centre of academic excellence in the first place. Your actions of evil colonialism have so occupied my yard; it left me cold. If this happened when you were alive, I wonder what would have been your take. Would you have insisted that your statue remain in its place? Or would you have agreed that with what you did to the inhabitants of this country, you should not be allowed to lord over them any further?

Sir Cecil, you have had your share of insults the last two weeks, and nothing was going to stand in the way of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and his UCT council to have you removed. I am telling you, you have caused trouble for so many of your compatriots who were standing in peace, immortalised at various locations. Now statues of other like-minded colonialists are being vandalised, painted and so on all over the country. The Economic Freedom Fighters – our latter-day opposition party to the ANC – have hijacked the campaign (anything remotely chaotic is their cup of tea). Look, the removal of your statue may seem heroic from a distance, but when the poo throwers don’t tell us when they will pour poo on an untransformed university, we have to look at this as populism and nothing else. I am sure being dead and all, you don’t care much about the symbolism we obsess over – as it no longer matters for you in the heaven and hell stakes – but we who are here can still quibble.

If you are not nothing but ash by now, you are probably laughing at the fact that people are prioritising symbolism when there are elephants in the room, such as the fact that UCT still has not produced one African professor and is justifying it to this day. But we have to be grateful for small mercies – at least we don’t still have your handsome face reminding us that you came, saw, conquered and died anyway. I suppose those who have to attend lectures at many of our universities are still reminded daily how far transformation has to go.

At least your statue has helped to stir a national debate about social cohesion, and has underlined the fact that racial flare-ups can come up for air. I am not sure what is next. Mandela statues are all over the place; the most recent being a hurriedly clayed-up one that was swiftly crashed by the police as soon as it was mounted in front of Parliament last year (which is another symbol of the affectionate relationship our police have with democracy). I guess at least nobody is vandalising statues of Madiba; thanks for small mercies. You didn’t get to experience him, but the man had a cross-racial appeal; something the likes of you, even in death, can only dream of. I suppose I fear that it is possible the EFF might, one day, vandalise even his memorials. They have been spiteful and indiscriminate enough to do so recently, as het up as they are over the Constitution, which Mandela himself pioneered – a fact they will soon enough come to see as they realise it rules out land grabs.

Sir Rhodes, your statue, like you when you departed this earth, is good riddance. My only complaint is about the snail’s pace at which it occurred, just as it has taken centuries to achieve economic freedom. If anything, the remnants of our colonial past linger, along with the consequences of Apartheid – and mental slavery at the highest levels, which allowed these symbols of oppression to be embraced for so long.

I’m not sure whether I should say ‘Rest in peace’ when you left behind so much turbulence. I know I am talking to someone who is probably burning in hell. So I guess it’s not time for you to rest yet. You did, after all, leave behind some unfinished business.

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM