OPINION: Cry not, beloved country

As the #Rhodesmustfall movement debate raged over recent weeks, many interpreted the calls for the fall of the statue simply as blacks wanting to destroy statues of white people. This sentiment spread like wildfire, especially on social media. Extremists on both sides of the colour line emerged and spewed racist vitriol at each other.

However, this interpretation has been proven incorrect by the subsequent vandalism of the Mahatma Gandhi statue, calls for the removal of statues of Shaka Zulu and Nelson Mandela, as well as the arrest of a white EFF member accused of vandalising the Queen Victoria statue in Port Elizabeth.

What all of this demonstrates to me is that the #Rhodesmustfall movement started a national debate about what it means to be South African and who our collective heroes are, rather than the race war as characterised by many. What is also clear is that as South Africans we need to accept that this debate will get ugly before it gets better. We are dealing with anger on both sides of the debate that has been buried for decades, if not centuries. South Africa suffered colonialism at the hands of England, then apartheid at the hands of the National Party and only became free two decades ago.

When apartheid fell we did not have some of the conversations we are having today because we were more concerned about putting forward a united front. These conversations, both on social media and traditional media platforms, were long overdue. Apartheid was a system that brutalised blacks (including coloureds and Indians) but also mis-educated whites about black people and their capabilities. Until the #Rhodesmustfall movement there was not a great deal of open discussion and how we as a country planned to uncover the untruths that we were taught about each other. We also have not had enough conversations about what it means to be South African in the post-apartheid era as well as the inequality that still exists between black and white citizens.

We are not the only post-conflict country to only wake up decades after conflict and seemingly suddenly call for a review of national identity and national symbols. Just last year Ukraine found itself in a similar position. Between December 2013 and February 2014, more than a 160 Lenin statues and Soviet icons across Ukraine were destroyed. Lenin is hailed by some for inspiring revolutionaries across the world, while others refer to him as a dictator who oppressed his people under the communist principle where all wealth, including land, industry and business, was nationalised.

In Ukraine, the first statue to fall was toppled by pro-European demonstrators from its place of pride in central Kiev. Protestors hammered it with a sledge hammer until it broke into pieces which they took home as mementos of the day. They occupied central Kiev and vowed to maintain their occupation until the government reversed its refusal to sign an association and free trade deal with the EU. Ukraine has a shared history with Russia and the statue of Lenin was a symbolic representation of this shared history. The protesters replaced the Lenin statue with a golden toilet which was said to be a symbol of state corruption.

When asked for comment, some Ukrainian protesters said that the fall of the statue represented Ukraine finally winning its freedom. This is similar to the sentiment of many South Africans on the day that Rhodes finally fell. Some social media comments rejoiced that the fall of the statue showed that South Africa now really belonged to all who lived in it. Much like the #Rhodesmustfall movement's argument that the Rhodes statue and many others should have fallen after democratisation in 1994, Ukrainians also argued that this monument of the Soviet Union and the associated communist period should have been removed after Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

In South America, Venezuela also had to deal with a similar sentiment in 2004, when activists toppled a bronze statue of Italian explorer and coloniser Christopher Columbus from a Caracas plaza. Then in 2007 Venezuela's government renamed 12 October, which is still celebrated as Columbus Day in many South American countries as well as the US, as 'indigenous resistance day'. This renaming formed part of a campaign of eradicating the leftovers of colonialism, which included a call for textbooks to be revised under a curriculum that would stress the opposition to Spanish conquest as doomed but heroic. This too is similar to the sentiments of the #Rhodesmustfall movement which called for a revision of the university curriculum as part of holistic transformation of the University of Cape Town.

The toppled Columbus statue was repaired and placed in a museum and its former site was renamed to Avenue Indigenous Resistance instead of Avenue Colombus. This sentiment spread across South America, with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela also overturning Columbus's legacy, especially the centuries of oppression of darker South Americans by pale-skinned Spaniards and their descendants, which continued long after independence.

Ironically, while Lenin and other Soviet Union leaders have been toppled and continue to be toppled by many countries, there are also towns in Europe which have revisited earlier decisions to destroy or remove another Soviet Union leader, Stalin. At the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the statues and monuments were broken down, but in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine many monuments and statues remain, and some new ones have even been erected. In Stalin's birthplace of Gori, the Georgian Ministry of Culture approved a proposal by a local municipality to reinstate a huge bronze statue of the dictator removed in 2010. However, the reinstated statue was not returned to its place of prominence in the central square but was erected in Stalin's museum in Gori. For some people, Stalin remains an important part of their national identity. Older people and communists are nostalgic about him and what he stood for. They see him as a hero who dragged the Soviet Union into the industrial age and helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II, while others denounce his cruel dictatorial rule that led to the death of millions.

Other countries did not wait for decades before they destroyed statues and monuments attached to an era. One of the most iconic images in history still remains the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 which was attended by thousands and watched by millions more around the world.

Thus, the anger and outrage that we are seeing in South Africa is a normal post-conflict reaction. We are not alone in our anger and frustration at the lack of visible change following the end of conflict. Even though we sometimes forget it, South Africa is a post-conflict society and, as is the case in many other regions, that conflict will flare up from time to time. This current wave is against apartheid and colonial statues and monuments, and in a decade or two the anger could be directed at the current rulers of the country and their particular legacy.

Vandalism should be condemned, but we must remember that feelings are not pretty, neat or rational. Many who felt silenced have finally found an opportunity to air their emotions about the new South Africa and we are gaining greater insight into how different South Africans feel about the country and each other.

I don't believe we will have a race war, we will not start shooting or killing each other on the streets, but there will be lots of arguing. The debate is all part of the cathartic process of healing and arriving at a common national identity.

Asanda Ngoasheng is an executive producer at Cape Talk.