Logic pushed to back seat as past is reinvented by rage

AS OUR local brigades of “Monuments Men” move around SA removing or redecorating symbols from our conflicted past, there’s an old joke from the Soviet Union that has currency.

A listener calls up a radio station with the question: “Comrade, is it possible to foretell the future?” The announcer responds, “Yes, comrade it is, we know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past. That keeps changing.”

So it is in today’s SA. At the time of writing, President Jacob Zuma and other custodians of our Constitution, premised on an inclusive multiculturalism, have opted for a pregnant silence on the rage around Cecil John Rhodes and other statuary accoutrements that represent one strand of South African history.

But the president’s son, Edward Zuma, has been less shy on these new cultural wars. He was quoted on the News24 website backing Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s strong antiforeigner sentiment, despite being half-Swazi himself. And, for good measure, he offered another nugget: a blanket removal of all colonial statues — Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and King George V at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Zuma junior says: “Black people need to stop being apologetic about their history.” His solution? Replace the Rhodes statue with that of “a black struggle stalwart” and the dead British monarch at the university with an image of King Shaka.

His proffered solution offers an incongruity of thought that is quite striking, and perhaps uncomfortably close to home. After all, if empire and colonial architecture amounts to a repudiation of African history, where, one might reasonably ask, is his father to sleep or work?

While the University of Cape Town has been uncomfortably in the headlights of the current clash, no attention has been paid to the Groote Schuur estate in Rondebosch, which houses the president and a brace of his Cabinet in high colonial lodgings. In 1896, the accursed Rhodes commissioned the architect of the British Empire, Sir Herbert Baker, to refurbish it and the surrounding dwellings. Baker later turned his attention to the seat of government, the historic Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Logic perhaps must take second place to rage, real or manufactured, as we go about reinventing the past.

But before turning to the narrow parochialism that so defines and perhaps defiles us today, perhaps we can borrow from some other jurisdictions that have grappled with what historian Simon Schama calls “acts of cultural panic … a puerile and fearful instinct (that) leads to irreversible acts of annihilation”.

While Schama had in his sights the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhas in 2001 in Afghanistan and, more recently, the Islamic State’s wrecking of priceless artefacts in Iraq and the ancient Assyrian town of Nimrud, he also referenced another, far more ancient university than either the universities of Cape Town or KwaZulu-Natal in a very dark age.

Demolition squads, acting on orders of Cromwell’s Long Parliament in 1643 to remove “all monuments of superstition and idolatry” offensive to the new Puritan order, zealously “broke and pulled down eighty superstitious pictures” at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge University.

The mobs of the French Revolution, with mixed success, “ripped out and smashed … anything associated with the centuries of the old regime”. Perhaps, not surprisingly, since he was a conservative commentator, British historian and parliamentarian Edmund Burke had a withering putdown for this annihilation of history.

He wrote of the revolutionary fervour and what it wrought: “You had all the advantages … but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society and had to begin everything anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that once belonged to you. You set up your trade without capital.”

Of more recent and perhaps relevant provenance stands India. It, far more than puny SA, was indeed the “jewel in the imperial crown”. It suffered more than its proportionate share of colonial indignities and massacres. But the first thing any contemporary visitor to bustling Mumbai (aptly renamed from colonial Bombay, though many locals still use the latter) sees is the “Gateway to India” on its seashore, directly opposite the splendid and unrenamed Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. If ever a colonial relic exists, look no further until you reach the capital New Delhi. There you alight upon the Rajpath, a cluster of colonial monumental splendor conjured up by Baker. Its range and reach makes his combined efforts with both Groote Schuur and the Union Buildings seem small.

Back at home, who knows where what begins with one removal of one offending statue at one university ends up?

Of course, any attempt to debate this issue or even to feel discomfited by the often “weak reasoning unleashing the strongest passions”, with apologies again to Burke, leads to accusations of “insensivity” or the South African all-purpose thought-blocker “racism”. But, as Australian historian Robert Hughes reminds us, “In stress, angry people who don’t have enough language (or whose language is merely the servant of an agenda) reach for the most emotive word they can find, ‘racist’ being today’s quintessential example.”

Back in 1986, UCT was confronted by the Connor Cruise O’Brien affair. This was a repudiation of the university’s free-speech claims when the Irish academic and diplomat was prevented from speaking on campus because of politically incorrect remarks he had made about the academic boycott then in place against institutions of higher learning. It buckled.

There is a secondary debate at UCT and elsewhere: is the institution in fact liberal, or should it strive to be something else? Perhaps a centre of nationalism, for example? It is difficult, at root, with the needs and rigours of academic inquiry and excellence, to see how a university can be anything other than liberal, or at least plural.

One of the lone voices who seemed to strike a sensible chord is the academic-turned-politician Michael Cardo. He wrote recently of the “sinister underbelly to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign”. He notes that the “politically correct ideologues who view the world through critical race theory… and ‘white privilege’ reduces the whole of history to the colonial encounter between ‘black’ and ‘white’ and ‘them’.” This then creates the wind for “race mobilisation”, not the interrogation of ideas or critical thought. Cardo says that using the white privilege prism simply seeks to make legitimate the African National Congress’s project of “transformation”, which, as he notes, is code for new form of racial domination.

In 1994, liberal veteran Jill Wentzel asked the question: “Will slideaway liberals now avoid guarding — or indeed help to fling open — the back door through which new totalitarian controls may enter?”

Looking at recent events, the answer appears to be, sadly, yes.