I’m having one of those “I told you so” moments. Two weeks ago, at the height of the debate over the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue, I asked in a column:
“When do we stop? Every historical figure can be contested. We could argue to take down South African statues of Mahatma Gandhi, who wasn’t exactly the best friend to this country’s black majority. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 or 20 years, in a more radical time, those voices calling Nelson Mandela a sell-out swell into a majority and demand the removal of the many public symbols and statues in honour of our first democratic president.”
It has now happened. One of a group of people who defaced the Gandhi statue has been arrested.
It has shocked even the Economic Freedom Fighters, who has condemned the act along with the Democratic Alliance and the ANC. But this moment has been a long time coming and I’m not that bothered by it. Here’s why:
1. A new generation of South Africans are giving us a moment of reckoning we never had:
I was initially ambivalent about the removal of the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) but I’ve since come to understand, after conversations with activists and academics, why the act was necessary and even important.
First, black South Africans never had a cathartic moment where they could declare a complete victory over their oppressors that was not tainted by compromise. That compromise was necessary for the 1994 generation, which negotiated our transition to democracy with a hostile and powerful white regime – but, more than 20 years later, a more radical generation is saying it is no longer happy with compromise and wants to see meaningful change.
This is a turning point in our history and one that was inevitable. Second, we South Africans have never really had a reckoning with our colonial history. We put most of the blame for racism at the door of Afrikaner nationalism and, as Rhodes University lecturer Richard Pithouse put it, English liberalism is let off the hook, even though colonialism set up apartheid.
And, third, of course, this was never about just a statue but about the larger issue of transformation, particularly at universities such as UCT. I realised that the Gandhi statue, too, was an important moment for a new generation, which is currently questioning everything, and this is one conversation we haven’t really had: How much did Gandhi really do for us in South Africa – all of us? It is the nature of youth to tussle with things and ask difficult questions. As long as it doesn’t translate into violence or shallow anti-Indian sentiment, I’m fine with that.
Obviously I’d prefer if we followed a legal route and engage in the processes made available, but young South Africans seem to be looking for more radical forms of expression.
Our national consensus is changing and we should allow that discussion to happen without being defensive, because …
2. Historical perspective is a bitch. But it can’t be ignored:
Every important historical figure will at some point be judged by the standards of the present. It’s not good enough to say that this is unfair: there are values that are universal and seeing black people as fully human should be one of them, particularly if you were fighting alongside them for freedom and respect.
Classing Gandhi’s racial failures alongside the likes of Paul Kruger and Rhodes may be unfair though. The latter figures were responsible for a grand and structured exploitation of the black majority.
Gandhi’s most harmful acts were his sentiments expressed about black South Africans while campaigning for Indian rights, and the fact that he did not join in a unified struggle with the country’s majority.
But his remarkable philosophies did inspire liberation movements among Africans on the continent and in the United States. It’s a complicated situation and depending on where people fall in the debate they will emphasise either his weaknesses or his strengths in terms of how he affected the struggle of the black majority.
3. Gandhi was wrong in terms of race, and I lose nothing admitting that:
The Afrikaans people who surrounded the Paul Kruger statue in Pretoria so defensively made me sad. They reminded me of Mandela’s former personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, who took issue with statements critical of Jan Van Riebeeck.
As I said before, I found this bizarre. Why did she identify so strongly with Van Riebeeck instead of choosing to define herself differently?
I have no such issue. I am comfortable with criticism of Indians and South Africans of Indian descent when they are wrong. Gandhi said some spectacularly awful things about black South Africans, as a quick Google search will show. Some people are only cottoning onto this now, but it’s long been a matter of debate.
The fact that he is being criticised for doing so says little about my identity or me. I believe in collective responsibility to some extent, so if this is about the South Africans of Indian descent as a community and their attitudes about race I’m happy to have that conversation, but for now it seems that this is about the problematic legacy of one man.
He may be a hero to many of my so-called Indian community in South Africa, but that does not make him beyond reproach.
4. The winds of opinions will always change and come around again:
On Gandhi’s 146th birthday last year, I thought about how my own views of Gandhi had changed in the light of his treatment of South Africa’s black majority.
While recognising that what he did, or failed to do, was reprehensible, I can also celebrate the good in his life – and history will too, even if it is cyclical as ideological trends of what is acceptable come and go.
Gandhi’s statue being defaced and a backlash against his legacy among some in South Africa doesn’t change what he did. Chronicling a visit to Gandhi Square – site of the central bus terminus in downtown Jo’burg – on the icon’s birthday I wrote:
“His statue, upon a small plinth, stood proudly to one side. It had survived the sway of public opinion, the changes his reputation would undergo through each version of history, and the defecating enthusiasm of pigeons flying overhead. He was still here.
“His legacy and his actions on behalf of a billion people in India and decolonisation movements elsewhere would survive. It couldn’t do otherwise.”
So in many ways Gandhi’s moment has been coming, as has Rhodes’s statue. South Africa’s history of oppression is vast and complex. Immediately after the fall of apartheid we focused on that regime and the wrongs it committed. But now we have space to stand back and ask questions about the rest of our history, and have conversations that have not been had before. The relevance of Gandhi to the black majority is one of them.
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