Comment: Deneesha Pilley (Monuments)

Compassion must replace destruction
April 8, 2015 | Filed under: Letters, | Posted by: Deneesha Pillay
‹ Build and respect, not destroy

Anglo Boer War Memorial

Anglo Boer War Memorial

FACE TO FACE: A fibreglass statue of Nelson Mandela faces the statue of Queen Victoria. The Mandela statue was one of a series created by NMMU students and mounted outside the Port Elizabeth main library as part of a ‘Conversations with the Queen’ project. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN
I WAS recently a passenger on a public bus in Miami, Florida in the US, when I was struck by a poignant plaque fixed above the front left-hand passenger seat, immediately behind the driver.

It was a plaque which read: “Seat dedicated in honour of Rosa Parks.”

What an incredibly simple and costeffective way of keeping the story alive of that brave African American woman who refused an order from a bus driver to give up her seat in the coloured section of the bus to make way for a white passenger.

Rosa Parks was an ordinary woman, a seamstress, who on December 1 1955 took a simple stand on her way back home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, that not only changed her life – she lost her job at a department store and suffered terrible harassment – but changed the segregation laws of the US.

I remembered this plaque in memory of Parks when I returned home from the States to the furore stirred up by the #RhodesMustFall student movement and the sight of the desecration of the soldier who was part of the Port Elizabeth Horse Memorial in Central.

Reading about the anger towards colonial monuments made me realise how so many generations of South Africans still carry the deep emotional scars caused by colonialism and the National Party’s grand apartheid divide and rule. These doctrines undermined the essence of all our humanity, by espousing white supremacy through every facet of our public and private life.

We experienced on a much more magnified scale the kind of legalised racism which led Rosa Parks to her gentle protest on that bus in Montgomery.

Sadly, despite the magnitude of our triumph over racism, there is no bus, no train or taxi in our country which commemorates the lives and stories of the ordinary South African versions of Rosa Parks, from all race groups, who stood up and said no to every little humiliating law imposed by the grandmasters of colonialism and apartheid.

Instead our democratic government has spent millions on monuments like The Red Location Museum in New Brighton which remains closed to the public due to the inability of local politicians and officials to manage the expectations of the constituencies they serve and to meet the budgets and revenue generation that is required to keep such world-class facilities open all year round.

While it would be overly simplistic to explain away the real anger and hurt experienced by the students and staff at UCT who want the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed as being mere sensation seeking, we do have to ask why, 21 years after our democracy was born, symbols of British imperialism like Cecil John Rhodes have taken centre stage as the object of such a groundswell of vitriol?

Is it because our government has not paid enough attention to the deep wounds caused by racial prejudice that still persist even in the generation of born-frees who are today’s student population?

Is it because formerly white universities, like UCT, which stood as beacons of academic freedom and bastions of liberalism during apartheid, failed to transform into truly nonracial institutions due to ingrained and often unconscious notions of white superiority and privilege among academic staff and students?

Is it because Julius Malema and his army of red warriors are the country’s most adept viral marketers, who know how to seize a simmering popular issue and milk it for all it is worth?

After all, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes stood imperiously in all his megalomaniacal glory at UCT during the decades of student anti-apartheid protests on campus and then for the years of our democracy.

The fact that former UCT students did not call for the removal of the statue does not mean that they had no experience of institutional racism or supported Rhodes’s astonishingly arrogant British imperial project. An arrogance clearly illustrated by his writing in Oxford in 1877: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.

“Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.”

Sadly this view of Anglo-Saxons being saviours of the heathen world, still prevails today in the minds of many of our city and country’s elite who fail to understand how “the most despicable specimens” could not feel grateful for the civilising influence of British infrastructure and institutions.


– ACT OF VANDALISM: This picture, showing EFF supporters
It is paternalistic attitudes like these, which are at their core racist, that have given rise to the #RhodesMustFall movement and the opportunistic EFF desecration of colonial-era monuments 21 years into our democracy.

So it comes to be that an Anglo Boer war memorial in Uitenhage, erected in 1904, is blackened by burning rubber tyres and the statue of the bronzecast Horse Memorial in Central, which was unveiled by the mayor of Port Elizabeth, Alexander Fettes 110 years ago, is damaged in a vainglorious whoop of triumphalism by a group of EFF supporters riding the populist wave of anti-colonialism sparked by the students of UCT.

While these red soldiers of fortune are desecrating visible symbols of a history they consider not to be theirs, there is a massive lost opportunity for debate and exploration of our mutual past that monuments like these can trigger.

The Uitenhage memorial was erected in memory of Afrikaner soldiers from Uitenhage who volunteered to fight against the British imperialists – Rhodes’ s people, Queen Victoria’s people.

How much could the EFF youth learn from the experience of Afrikaner women and children who were placed in the world’s first concentration camps by the British?

Why did the Afrikaners in their war against the British never see the majority of black people who were also colonised as potential allies?

How different would our country have been if notions of white racial superiority were not assimilated by the majority of the subjects of the queen or the Boers who resisted British rule?

Discussions like this were provoked by a project by visual arts students at NMMU and the Nelson Mandela Bay Development Agency in 2012 titled “Conversations with Victoria”.

The third- and fourth-year students carved lifesized fibreglass statues of political figures like Nelson Mandela and ordinary people and placed them in front of the marble statue of Queen Victoria in front of the PE library.

What would Victoria have to say to Steve Biko and Madiba when confronted about how her subjects marauded and divvied up the land inhabited by the Xhosa people?

What would she say to author Charles Dickens, who like many poor British children, had to work at the age of 12 in a blackening factory during her reign?

What would the descendants of 1820 Settlers say to the monarch whose government dumped them in the tent town that was Port Elizabeth to be used as human buffer zones between the colony and the Xhosa people?

What the NMMU students and the NMBDA did is just one way of exploring our colonial history that does not require the destruction of monuments of the past to engage in a conversation of our future.

We need more creative models of dialogue like this to get everyone talking about these things that hurt and divide us to prevent the polarisation that the EFF’s acts of wanton destruction are triggering.

What the EFF fails to understand in their enthusiasm for monument bashing is that the UCT vice-chancellor, senate, SRC and student body have every right to bring down the statue of Rhodes and all it symbolises because it is not a national monument, unlike the Uitenhage Boer War Memorial and Horse Memorial, which is protected by The National Heritage Resources Act of 1999.

Those EFF members, who police can identify through their Facebook postings of their vandalising achievements in Port Elizabeth and the defacing of the statue of Paul Kruger in Pretoria’s Church Square, face fines, prison sentences or could be forced to repair the damage they caused under the provisions of the National Heritage Resources Act if caught and found guilty.

I hope the vandals are caught and are made to repair the monuments they defaced, in particular the horse memorial as this was a statue sponsored by women of Port Elizabeth in the early 1900s who were appalled by the savagery of the Anglo Boer War, indeed a colonial war, which saw the slaughter of more than 300 000 horses which were shipped in from Britain through the port of Port Elizabeth.

In this war, 27 927 Boers died in British concentration camps, among them 22 074 children, while 14 154 black people died, among them 11 323 children.

While repairing the statue, the vandals should take the time to read the inscription on the base of the memorial reminding all of us that “the greatness of a nation consists not so much upon the number of its people or the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion”.

This view is antithetical to the imperialistic expansionist views of Rhodes. It appeals for an emotion our country needs in abundance: compassion.

-EDITOR’S OPINION, HEATHER ROBERTSON

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