CAPE TOWN – 27 March 2015: University of Cape Town students should be credited for sparking an important societal debate about the monuments, statues and memorials that symbolise our divided past.
They have every right to question whether it is appropriate that a statue of Cecil John Rhodes stand in a prominent position on their campus. The statue was erected in a previous era to glorify a man regarded by many as among the most rapacious figures of the Southern African colonial era. There is no information to offer any context for the memorial.
The students have the right to question the glorification of a contested historical figure. But they have no right to destroy our history, as some are threatening to do. They have no right to hold our institutions hostage. They have no right to threaten violence or to fling excrement about in public. And they have absolutely no right to exclude anyone from participating in the debate on the basis of the colour of his or her skin. If racism was wrong under apartheid, it is equally wrong now.
The debate is not about any single statue, be it Cecil John Rhodes, Louis Botha or Jan Smuts or, for that matter, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela or Albert Luthuli. It’s about our history. The history that made us who and what we are today – warts and all.
Destroying statues erases history. It obliterates a part of our common story. We do not want to erase our history. We do not want to deny it. We do not want to forget what happened to us. Our past has made us who we are.
The UCT students have done us a service. They have us talking about what it means to be South African.
In the context of this broad conversation, the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation has a proposal.
UCT has as its chancellor one of the finest women on our planet. A former teacher, revolutionary, cabinet minister and the former First Lady of two countries. She is an advocate for children, a member of The Elders and a global activist. She is one of very few people with the authority to stand in the General Assembly of the United Nations and chide the most powerful people in the world to their faces.
Why are UCT students not discussing the installation of a statue of Mrs Graca Machel on their campus?
And, while we’re about it, why have we not considered memorialising the role UCT students played in the anti-apartheid struggle? Yes, those young people were overwhelmingly white and undeniably privileged, but they were prepared to put their power and privilege on the line to give birth to our rainbow nation.
Whatever we think of Rhodes, he had a profound impact on our country and its people for good and for ill. It is his bequest that preserves the green beauty of Table Mountain from unbridled development. It was his rapacious greed that wrested the land from our aboriginal ancestors. We cannot erase his impact. It lives with us still, will continue to do so for generations to come.
Whether or not he should continue to command the unquestioned position of authority that he does on the campus at UCT is a fascinating conversation for which we should be grateful. We can and we must have this discussion without resorting to shouting, intimidation, violence or racism.
We must listen to each other. So many people fought, bled, were imprisoned, tortured and died to create a fair, just, equitable, inclusive and united South Africa. Every one of them, every one of us is made up of shining good and courage bundled together with faults, flaws and foibles. We all have stories. Our stories are rich, complex, and multidimensional. They are told in words and music, in symbols, landscape, structures and statuary.
South African history is made up of all of our stories. We must not ignore our stories. We dare not erase our history. What we erase we forget, and what we forget we are doomed to repeat.
This statement was issued for The Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu, Executive Director of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, by Oryx Media.