Friday, 10 April 2015

Racism and the debate around statues

I have listened closely to debates around the statues in our country on various media platforms. In many of these is very little mention of racism. There is talk of statues being ‘offensive’. A great deal is said about ‘history and heritage’. There is also reference to notions such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘social cohesion’.

But if we want just and sustainable solutions to this issue, we need to discuss racism and call it by name. From there, we can jointly find the road to a more through-going transformation. At UCT, even though a full discussion of racism was not held, it was easier to find a workable resolution because the UCT vice-chancellor openly acknowledged that racism (both past and current) afflicts the institution. Max Price realises that listening to the students and dealing with exponents and heroes of white superiority is the least that UCT can do.

But for wider society, and the broader issue of these landmarks, it is difficult to get wide agreement (including larger numbers of white people) because many do not see that removing the busts of these past champions of white superiority is the least that society can do. It is therefore imperative to make racism a focal point of current discussions.

In the rest of this article, I will discuss racism as well as issues of racist oppression memory work. Thereafter I return to the debate around the removal of statues in the context of the need to oppose and root out racism.

It is true that ‘racism’ is sometimes used to refer to discrimination by one person against another based on colour or ethnic origin.

In this article, it is used in the sense used by Ashok Ohri, Margaret Legum and Basil Manning, renowned anti-racist workers in South Africa and Britain. Racism in this sense is an ideology of group supremacy, is practiced over generations and enters the culture of both the oppressed and oppressor. It entails denial on a massive scale of resources, opportunities, dignity.

In our case, white racism has led to systematic human rights abuses and denial of rights that will affect us for generations to come. Black people suffered immense loss – including the loss of lives.

In relation to racism and memory work, a critical step in transformation is acknowledgment by perpetrators and those who benefitted. Verne Harris and Chandre Gold, in an official paper for the Nelson Mandela Foundation state that dealing with oppressive past requires “people to take responsibility for violations done in their name”.

They also take a tough line on perpetrators. In this regard they say that “a blanket amnesty for the perpetrators of violation can never be justified” and could lead to “resilient cultures of impunity, lack of accountability, and societal rage.”

In current debates, some like Steve Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges, would not like to foreground racism. Such people want to chain themselves to their heritage – but what are they saying about racism and allegiance to a system declared a crime against humanity?

Others are calling for “negotiations” on the issue of statues. Some, including a spokesperson for the Freedom Front Plus, have called for keeping all the old statues and simply adding ones that depict liberation heroes. Can you imagine the scenario: five old-guard statues and five statues of anti-apartheid activists in every town, and double that in each city? Can you imagine if such an approach were used in Germany after the end of Nazism? This is exactly what we get if we try to sidestep the racism issue.  

A few white people have called on those demanding the removal of the statues concerned to consider the biographies of the particular “hero”. “How many people did Rhodes kill,” one caller to a radio station asked this week, demanding that the offending statue be left alone. This caller fails to realise that the campaign to dethrone “old guard” statues is actually a drive to end “denial”; to bring home to South Africans the hypocrisy of claiming to be free of racism and yet glorifying those who crafted, propagated and entrenched the system of domination.

Finally, some in the white community believe that removing the offending statues is a sign to white people that they have no place in South Africa. But the opposite is true. People like Max Price and other progressive white people know that this is not about some kind of reversal of white-black racial discrimination. Many of those who support the idea of bringing down the stone figure of Rhodes would welcome statues of, for example, Beyers Naude, Helen Suzman and Liberal Party stalwart Peter Brown. In this regard, as statues go, the dividing line is the distinction between champions of an evil system and those who fought against it.

Despite our fights, white and black people can face the future together. But a basic requirement is acknowledgement of racism and taking responsibility for what happened in the past.

Frank Meintjies

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