This is not about statues. It never was. Statues hold significance not as mere harmless impotent bronze or concrete in a contextual vacuum; but are erected to honour and immortalise people, and to reflect the values and aspirations of the people of a time and place. Those statues represent a past that must never be forgotten, but cannot be honoured by the majority of people in this time and place.
We would all like to believe that from 1994, most people in SA have disavowed their racism, and those that didn’t were just the ugly remnants of what had to be left behind. We heard our elders still refer to people of other races in ugly terms, but we forgave them and laughed it off thinking, “MY children won’t have to deal with this.” We held the narcissistic idea that starting with us, racism would just dilute itself out over a generation or two; so ending racism was just a waiting game. Then we could all just start respecting each other’s cultures and get on with being the awesomest country in the world. We didn’t even realise that that was perhaps the most racist thing we could possibly do.
How could we be so short-sighted so as to assume racism has no economic component? As if a black child in an informal settlement playing on the side of the N2, seeing the beautiful cars driven overwhelmingly by people that look nothing like him, would not start to make the connection? Would he not start to see his colour as a factor in his destitution and his indignity? Or a white child growing up in large Southern Suburbs home, watching his mother call Mavis or Patience to come and clean up the mess he made: will he not grow up with a sense of superiority over those darker than he? And then we have the “coloureds” – that still, believe the Apartheid construct that they are superior to black people in some way? Now please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying this is true in all cases in all places for all races. I am saying that enough of these racialised circumstances exist to perpetuate racial animosity.
As long as the geographic and the socio-economic circumstances of people still mirror what it was during Apartheid, we cannot expect racism to disappear. And no, racists, this isn’t about “it’s their culture” or “they’re lazy” or “they want a free ticket”. This is about the hundreds of years of cumulative disenfranchisement of black people, and to a lesser degree other non-whites. This is about Apartheid’s INFRASTRUCTURAL and INSTITUTIONAL components that were never dismantled, and so remain active and current sources of racial tension.
So back to the young students at UCT and that statue. In their families, in their friends, in their trust-fundlessness, in their landlessness; the dispossessed still feel their dispossession racially. They feel the macro- and micro-racism, the subtle glances, the taxis crowded with coloureds and blacks. They feel the suspicious stares and the Bravos and Charlies by security guards; while white people, by virtue of their skin tone and centuries of privilege, can walk around like they are NOT part of a police line-up. In the context of UCT, black students continue to feel unwelcome, unless they went to a school with white friends. They feel alienated on a campus that is supposed to be there to empower them. They feel the indignity and patronisation of being silently reminded that this is privilege for them, while it is a right for their white peers. Now we can shrug this off as "victim-mentality", but then we assume they are lying/exaggerating/feigning. Racism on loop.
And then, they have to look up at the face of one of the worst disenfranchiser of blacks in SA history sitting there. Cecil John Rhodes. The Usurper. The Entrencher. The White Collar Thief. The Unapologetic Racist.
It’s time for us to realise: this may not be about race to many of us, but to those who still have to deal with race as a handicap, it very much is.