/ 29 May 2015

All the sound and fury of symbolism

Safely six feet under: The grave of colonist Cecil John Rhodes in the Matopos National Park
Former president Jacob Zuma flanked by Sanco treasurer Roy Moodley and its then president Richard Mdakane arrive at a Sanco rally in Durban in 2014. Moodley is contesting to be Sanco’s president. (Thuli Dlamini/Sowetan/Gallo Images)


Like Thabo Mbeki (Zizi!), let me start from the beginning. In 1996, he sang oratory that still resonates today – oratory that still astounds the whole world. In part, he said: “I am an African. I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own action, they remain still part of me.”

On that occasion of the adoption of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill in 1996, the entire Constitutional Assembly gave a deafening round of applause, a standing ovation and an impromptu song in his honour. If these were our true representatives (and they were), we must have done the same in front of our televisions and to our ear-biting radios.

A presumption, irrebuttable in law, is that we understood then, as we understand now, what Mbeki meant. He surely was affirming himself as an African born out of all the peoples of this country, “migrants who left Europe” included. In turn, he was affirming all these peoples as Africans. Necessarily, he was arguing for the preservation of their legacy as a precondition for social cohesion.

Now that the dust has hopefully settled on removing the statues of erstwhile “oppressors” by militant action, paving the way for legislated action to be preceded by wide consultation, perhaps I’ll be a fool (not an empty) who rushes in where even angels fear to tread.

“Knowledge is power,” Socrates declared. And our universities are the production houses of that knowledge. It is therefore incumbent on the universities, especially our students, to prove that they have thoroughly researched “issues” before they embark on mass action. A presumption, rebuttable in law, is that the students of the University of Cape Town sufficiently researched the role played by Cecil John Rhodes beyond being an “oppressor” before they took action.

Every entity, whether natural or juristic, is an account – it has a debit side and a credit side. It is only when these sides are reckoned with that a balanced view (a correct balance, in accounting parlance) can be taken. It behooves our university students now to give us an account of Cecil John Rhodes. This is a very important component of a liberal education.

Nelson Mandela (Ah! Dalibhunga), on the sad occasion of the burial of Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile’s only son, set out to pay tribute to our past chiefs and missionaries for the role they played in educating and liberating us. (I suppose he took the cue from the venue, which was the University of Fort Hare). At first, people were agitated, but as he developed his thesis, all the mourners applauded him.

What Tat’uMandela was saying is that these entities, whatever their actions, had a successful “civilising mission” as Mcebisi Ndletyana calls it in his African Intellectuals in 19th and Early 20th Century South Africa. On this basis alone, would Tat’uMandela agree to the desecration and removal of the statue of Rhodes – he who graciously agreed to the renaming of the Oxford scholarship to Mandela Rhodes Scholarship?

Some will smell a difference between a coloniser and a missionary. The truth is nowhere in the world has a missionary ventured without the protection of a colonial power and they were ever ad idem on strategy.

Now enters Robert Mugabe, the African fire-eater. He enters Shakespeare’s proverbial stage; he makes us South Africans the real fire-eaters. He knows we are busy removing Rhodes’s statue, while they in Zimbabwe keep his corpse.

With his inimitable wit, he seeks our advice as to what to do with Rhodes’s corpse. Without waiting for that advice, he declares that they will not dig up the corpse. They will not send it to Britain. With arguably the greatest metaphor, he fears that such actions may make his spirit rise again.

Perhaps the greatest advice to students is that given by George Bizos SC. Though acknowledging their right to protest, vandalising statues is no option.

Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele, if I am not misquoting him, appeared to say on Morning Live recently that these statues of our erstwhile oppressors are the visible manifestation of the victory of human spirit over objects of doom and should preferably be left where they are. As a country boy, I recall how pleasant it was to regularly meet the boy you defeated in a stick fight.

So it is that, as a fool, I am not alone.

How would it be if we literally demonstrated the march of history by, say, erecting a statue of Tat’uMandela and Graça Machel in front of that of Rhodes? Many advantages accrue. More so that Machel is the chancellor of UCT.

This is all about symbolism – very important to a liberated country. But not nearly as important as organic transformation at these universities. You will not spend much time at UCT or at Fort Hare without realising that the former is a previously white university and the latter a black one. Surely that should not be evident more than 20 years into our democracy and some of us have written on modalities to effect true transformation.

As Mbeki begins and Shakespeare concludes: these have all been

panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.

Professor Mncedisi Jordan was on the staff of the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University, where he taught and supervised accountancy students. He now researches indigenous cultures