When its staff and students stared upon this particular inanimate object, they were struck, as if by magic, by a searing pain in their heart. They lost control. They were unable to contextualise the statute or Rhodes in time and space. The irony is that all their public distaste for him revealed full well the fact that they clearly did understand the nature of his contribution. That fact seemed lost on them. No, when they looked up at this statue they forgot themselves. Then they were transformed in helpless, cowering casualties. They had to cover their eyes; ultimately, so pathetic, to have their eyes covered for them. The second great irony, then, is that in doing so, they gave Rhodes power over them. But that seemed lost on them too. Make no mistake, this episode was a victory for Rhodes — he reached out from the beyond the grave and infected that campus, manipulated its emotions and distorted its reasoning. He won, fair and square. A dead man made the living tremble.
Read Gareth van Onselen’s prepared text of an excellent speech delivered to the Johannesburg Rotary Club last week and first published in BDlive on 15 April 2015 – The Rhodes statue: of mad panics and permanence.
Further random extracts from the speech
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Throughout this regressive spasm, the meaning of the Rhodes statue has never once been disputed. A decision was made decades ago to commission a piece of bronzed clay, one that should represent Rhodes favourably, as a tribute to him and that it should be placed prominently on the grounds of a university born of his own wealth. Up until recently, we could touch that series of historical facts today. How rare and wonderful that opportunity is. What you see through that window into time might be abhorrent, but what a privilege to look back through the wormhole and observe the actual decisions of those who preceded us. Of even greater value still, we have the knowledge and perspective to place those decisions in context — to understand why the university acted the way it did at that particular time and, with all the evidence available to us, to place Rhodes within his proper context and to learn from it. That is what mature societies do with the art they inherit. It is how they learn.
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To look on the statue, we were told, was an affront. Just as those who looked on the painting of Zuma told us it was an attack on their dignity and his. The curious thing about the statute is that, behind it, sweeping out below the university campus in all its ambiguous glory is Cape Town itself. A city, just like every other city in SA, defined by colonial ideas and apartheid architecture. You cannot look anywhere from where Rhodes’s statue stood without seeing the past staring back at you. Perhaps the entire city should fall? To be sure, there are those who agree with that sentiment. Their convictions would have been fuelled by their victory. Perhaps, more appropriately, all at UCT should wear blindfolds so they are never once forced to look at those things that offend and hurt them. Their near-sighted obsession has now presented before them a far-sighted reality. Let them look on it each day and be reminded of their own near-sightedness.
In truth, all UCT did was reveal itself as an organisation of victims led by the weak and indecisive; mirroring much of SA at large.
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Truly there has never existed before such a magical man. Rhodes must have been something of a wizard. Able to reduce people to quivering, fearful victims unable even to look at him; yet, at the same time, with the ability to help enable them to make decisions, to learn and to understand who he was, even to instil in them an understanding that he did great harm to SA and Africa alike, and the wherewithal to counter it. If panics are “the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy”, in turn they are the moments when agency and victimhood merge seamlessly into one thing — one thing with two faces.
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If everyone was so uniformly opposed to him, certainly it taught no one anything. All the act did was confirm how demonstrably committed the mob are to intolerance and how meek our elders are in the face of its anger. And thus there was much back-patting to be had all round as those who had successfully removed the object of their shared distaste congratulated each other on how servile they were before mindless populism. In the shadows the elders looked on fearfully. Only a few were willing to raise their voices; when they did they were quickly isolated, marked and smothered dead in invective.
But there is a case to be made that this particular incident is particularly disturbing in a very particular way.
SA’s intelligentsia is a small society. Even within its confines there is often a misunderstanding about key criteria necessary to qualify: originality and fortitude.
We confuse an intellectual with a clever person who confirms conventional thought. There is a price one pays for that: orthodox thought dominates debate — it is the benchmark by which ideas are measured and valued. There were many clever people who offered up their services on this issue. They went to work at their respective linguistic workbenches, beating words and argument into a form they deemed palatable. When they didn’t fit, they beat harder. Until reason itself glowed red hot. They, more than those students caught up in the madness, are culpable.
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You cannot “correct” history. It is many things, often savage, sometimes glorious. In truth it is all a mistake, for every decision ever taken could, with the benefit of hindsight, have been improved on. To judge the motivations of its characters by contemporary standards is to misunderstand enlightenment thinking entirely. It is a comparative position arrived at through trial and error. Remove the error and you denude the modern outcome of its value and worth to progress and development. For then you inevitably have to learn the lesson again.
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To shore up their fanaticism many reduced the Rhodes statue to a binary moral test, as with totalitarian impulses: either you supported its removal (preferably its destruction), or you did not. If you did, you were progressive, in touch with and realistic about the country’s history and sympathetic to the plight of black South Africans in particular. If you opposed it, you were recalcitrant, mostly likely an admirer of Rhodes himself, suffering from some kind of myopia, and, if white, privileged to the degree that you might even take a degree of cruel enjoyment from the statue. The most obtuse of these clever people would say things like, “If you oppose the removal of the statue, you just don’t get it.” And so the door to rationality was slammed shut, locked tight, and the key was throw away. Much like the statue itself.
Of course there is a perfectly rational alternative: that one understands who Rhodes was and the damage that he inflicted, that when you look at the statue of him, you see the horror, and you think to yourself with compassion, “never again”. Even that, in doing so, you are encouraged to understand more, to learn about the past and the errors that define it, so that you might help ensure they are not repeated. Why was it that he was celebrated when his policies were responsible for so many traumas? That, after all, is the point of history. If people of that persuasion do exist on UCT’s campus, they were shut out or shunned; if not, they willingly bit their own tongues. Their view was not legitimate.
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How disappointing it has been to see the liberal response to this assault on freedom. Here, if ever, there was an opportunity for those who value and believe in the ideals such as tolerance and freedom of speech — the latter being defined as much by the right to offend as it is the right to defend it — to speak up and draw a line in the sand. But, for the most part, they hid their heads in the sand. That is, when they weren’t genuflecting or ingratiating themselves with political correctness. One of the by-products of new South African politics is the spineless liberal. Guilt-ridden and gutless, they feign conviction in private while in public they flaunt their deference before power. In doing so, they legitimise the mob.
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Ignorance, they say, is bliss. What they don’t mention is how addictive it is. We are tearing pages out of the South African book at such a rate; soon there will be little to read at all. The only word left undamaged will be transformation. But only for a time. Sure enough, followed through to its ultimate conclusion, that too will fall.