[BOOK EXTRACT] Turning and turning: tackling symbols of black pain

As an analyst and governance specialist at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) for twelve years, Judith February has had a unique perch. 'Turning and turning' is a snapshot of her Idasa years and the issues tackled, which included work on the arms deal and its corrosive impact on democratic institutions, Idasa’s party-funding campaign, which February helped lead, as well as work on accountability and transparency.

The genesis of the #FeesMustFall movement was, in large part, at UCT. It was essentially an offshoot of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement. On 9 March 2015, the self-styled ‘leader’ of this loosely formed anti-Rhodes/anti-colonialism campaign, Chumani Maxwele, threw buckets of faeces at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. According to protesters, the very existence of the statue on UCT’s campus deeply offended people, specifically those who continue to suffer the effects of colonialism and apartheid. Its presence was a visceral reminder that the university itself needed to be ‘decolonised’. As with any provocative act like Maxwele’s, there will be those ‘for’ and ‘against’ it. Let us make no mistake, it was intended to provoke. Tempers ran high during that period and the UCT community was divided.

To me it was not the demands of the movement that were problematic, but the fact that the flinging of faeces was seen as a legitimate way in which to engage in public discourse. This was a show of ‘affect’, and the ‘logos’ that I believe should also inform our discussions regarding transformation was subordinated. In my view, it is a mark of singular disrespect that university workers have repeatedly had to clean up faeces and other mess left by protesters at universities. These workers are mothers and fathers, and they are the very poor and marginalised the protesting students talk about representing.

It is ironic that one of the most powerful symbols of the #FeesMustFall movement was the march by students on the Union Buildings in October 2015. Afterwards, groups of students stayed behind to clear the streets of the debris left by some protesters. That simple act was not lost on many who watched.

The march that day was a true assault on the seat of state power. Zuma did not come out to face the students, who nonetheless stayed gathered and demonstrated their dissatisfaction. It was a clear statement of intent that the students were not going to simply let the matter of free higher education rest despite empty promises by the state. The discipline generally shown by students that day won over many of those on the outside of the protests, and seemed to move students away from victimhood to agency and well-being. To borrow Ndebele’s words from the Joseph lecture again:

Against this context ‘black pain’ in its current manifestations comes across to me more as an attribute of victimhood than of agency. To reclaim agency, a different question has to be asked. What is it that would constitute relief from ‘black pain’? There had to be a notion of ‘black wellbeing’ and supportive conditions for it to be affirmed so that it might flourish. What were the features of the alternative identity and social value of ‘black’ wellbeing after the termination of ‘black pain’ when ‘whiteness’ had been vanquished and removed from the scene? What is ‘black’ wellbeing? In what kind of society would it flourish? Who would bring that society about?

There was no denying the power of Maxwele’s political ‘theatre’ and the way it captured the public imagination. This was specifically so in Cape Town where the lack of proper sanitation in townships has long been a controversial issue and by then a symbol of the humiliation of poor black people at the hands of the governing DA in the city of Cape Town.

The nature of statues and symbols became a national issue and there were increased instances of defacement of apartheid and colonial statues around the country – all of which, in my view, were proxy battles for the greatest battle still ahead of us: the deep transformation of the economy and the power structures in our society.

Over the course of March and April 2015, the rash of defacement affected images of King George V, Paul Kruger, Mahatma Gandhi, Queen Victoria, Marthinus Pretorius, Andrew Murray, as well as a few war memorials. This led to debates about transformation and belonging, some thoughtful and some unbearably one-sided and intolerant.

Proponents of removing these artefacts drew attention to the injustices they represented. This was not only about the historical record of their subjects, but also about their role as signifiers of continuing racialised poverty and injustice. Those who argued against their removal pointed to the need to preserve them as part of the country’s history, irrespective of whether their roles were positive, negative or some combination of the two. In so doing, the past would always be with us in a graphic way, thus potentially helping us to avoid past mistakes and injustices.

In 2016, historical works of art were set alight at UCT since they were viewed as the ‘symbols of the coloniser’. Later, students covered up the iconic statue of Sara Baartman, the Eastern Cape woman taken to England in the nineteenth century to be put on public display. After being paraded around England as part of a freakshow, Sara’s proprietors, in the words of sculptor Willie Bester,‘fled to France with her and they [the displays] continued in France until her death.’ During Mandela’s presidency, he sought permission from the French for Baartman’s remains to be returned to South Africa. Finally the remains were returned and on Women’s Day in 2002 Baartman was laid to rest in Hankey in the Eastern Cape.

Her meaning goes beyond the narrow confines of the public display and derision but is a powerful reminder of the European use of stereotypes of African people and women in particular. In the end, some form of justice came for Baartman in this poignant homecoming. In death and beyond, she becomes a powerful symbol of resistance and not victimhood. Mandela in his act of requesting the return of Baartman’s remains in a public and international way seized power from those who would stereotype Africans in the most degrading of ways. In that simple act, power is seized on all of our behalf. That is the debate I felt we ought to have had about Baartman, her public humiliation and the triumph of her return to her roots in Hankey. Instead, Bester, a black artist, in effect had his artwork censored by those unable to engage with the meaning of Sara Baartman.

Interestingly, in August 2017, the United States found itself in the centre of a debate on Confederate statues, after a white nationalist rally turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia. The protest was an appalling display of white supremacy and thereafter sensitised people to the offensive nature of over 1,500 Confederate statues around the United States. The Confederacy was the group of eleven Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860. The desire to retain slavery in these states was the prime reason for the secession. Statues of the leaders of the Confederacy dot the landscape of these states. As they were being torn down, debates continued about the statues, which to many symbolise institutionalised racism. It seems a fair point to make in the circumstances.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. Her book 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy', published by Pan Macmillan, was released this month. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february