Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Flocking to a new future

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Vuli Nyoni's Murmuration at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

Part of Vuli Nyoni’s ‘Murmuration’ at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

There is no doubt that the Rhodes statue should move from its current location. It should have moved a long time ago. The remarkable thing is not that there are students – black and white – that demand its removal. Instead, it is remarkable that a man that caused so much pain expropriating the lands of blacks across southern Africa and Boers in the Republics could escape the furies of so many for so long. Not anymore.

#RhodesMustFall is a no-brainer. But what should substitute Rhodes’ statue is the far more difficult question. Not only on the premises of UCT, but across South African campuses. Offensive names across the country – like the DF Malan centre at Stellenbosch University (despite my attempts last year to suggest that it can be seen as a victory over the past) – have changed. But, as far as I can see anyway, there is no discussion about forging a new, inclusive identity. This has to do with the unfortunate way the Rhodes statue has given rise to groups that want to score cheap political points; the poo-throwing, militaristic, nationalistic and even extremist sentiments expressed in many of the student meetings are an unhappy result of UCT dragging its feet. Now Rhodes’ statue will fall at the hands of opportunists instead of a progressive movement for change.

It’s necessary to recast the past, of course. It’s also easy. What is much more difficult is to define an inclusive vision of the future.

So let me try. On Thursday evening I attended the International Food Evening at Stellenbosch University. More than a thousand students descended on  Academia residence to taste the cuisine of our international  visitors; food from Belgium (who won first prize) to Zimbabwe (who came third) was on offer, as well as that of 23 other countries. It was fun and festive, delicious and diverse. These are not the pictures, unfortunately, the Cape Times report on their cover, because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of Stellenbosch as the last bastion of Afrikaner racism. Instead, Congolese and Canadian, Zulu and Zambian, Swazi and Swiss, Angolans and Afrikaners were conversing under the stars, tasting foreign foods and drinking beer. That image, to me at least, represents a future Stellenbosch, and a future South African society.

That is, a society that is not uniform (where we all look, think, act the same), but united in our purpose to build a prosperous society for all. For too long in our history, those in power had a vision of South Africa that excluded those who lived in it: Rhodes’ vision of a British Empire in Africa had no space for black or Boer. The Afrikaners’ vision of apartheid South Africa had no space black South Africans. And, in truth, the current regime seems to hell bent on disenfranchising amakwerekwere, Africans from countries outside South Africa. A recent estimate suggests that at least 5% of the people in this country are Zimbabweans, more than 3 million in total. What is happening to them is much the same as what happened to blacks during apartheid.

How do we build this inclusive, prosperous future? First we must step away from the strive toward uniformity. Nationalism is an idea that has been tried before and it has failed, again and again. When we flock, as Vuli Nyoni pointed out in an US/Leuven Thinktank seminar earlier on Thursday evening, we tend to lose track of our personal convictions, our personal identities. Perhaps our emphasis on ubuntu – I am who I am through other people – has made us (and here I include not only black South Africans because I think Afrikaners have this characteristic too) prone to groupthink, or flocking. Birds of a feather flock together is what we like to say, but instead of shared appearances we should be focusing on a shared purpose.

Second, we must grow. I don’t want to discuss economic policy here, but consider the collective entrepreneurial spirit of the Asian countries over the last three decades. Government, business and civil society shared a vision of a prosperous future, implementing pro-growth policies that allowed millions to escape poverty and thousands to become millionaires. India, China, and South Korea, despite their own legacies of colonialism, now have large middle classes that can enjoy the fruits of capitalism. South Africans, by focusing so much on the injustices of the past, should be wary of trying too hard to create a new past instead of a new future.

Which brings me back to Rhodes’ statue. What will replace it? Once we’ve (finally) destroyed the myth that we should all be English, or Afrikaans, or South African, what next? Que vadis young South Africa?


Written by Johan Fourie

March 21, 2015 at 11:47

6 Responses

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  1. I agree and disagree with many of the comments posted.

    ccorruption is th core issue, we as a people must stand together against our leaders as it is us who have given them this power over us. We need to have all and I mean ALL of them removed at our next elections and start fresh with a new government.

    policies need to be enforced and potential leaders need to be investigated to confirm their education.

    Payouts need to be made to people with information that leads to conviction of politicians and police officials after this we can move forward in building our new nation as Nelson Mandela intended.

    What pains me is that some black south african people paint all white south africans with the same racist brush, they do not see the racist actions taken against us afrikaans whites.

    Why not change all street names associated with Rhodes too AND not to an african name that’s just racist make it something meaningful or at least something that means nothing to anyone like ‘stone’ or table streets ‘

    sad that race issues get Resolved with racist methods let’s rub it in the whities faces and make it Malema street’

    Yes I said it that’s the order of the day with our current government.

    No more ANC no more DA No more EFF they must all go!


    April 10, 2015 at 10:20

  2. […] I don’t often read Foreign Affairs – the leading political science magazine published by the Council on Foreign Relations – but when, ahead of a 14-hour flight back to South Africa, I found an airport bookshop displaying the March/April issue with the provocative title ‘The Trouble with Race’, I decided that it would make for good airplane reading. Here was one of the world’s most authoritative magazines writing about an issue that affects everyone everywhere, but it is in South Africa during March 2015 that racial injustices has been brought into the limelight. Race, and racial prejudice, is the underlying theme of #RhodesMustFall, a movement by thousands of students across the country agitating for the dismantling of white power structures two decades after apartheid formally ended. Discussions of race and racial exclusion has emerged at campuses across the country. Rhodes will fall, but the future is murky. […]

  3. The University of KwaZulu-Natal is deeply saddened and disappointed by the group of protestors who chose not to raise their concerns regarding the King George V statue through the proper channels established within UKZN. The University supports the students’ rights to exercise lawful freedom of expression and encourages open debate and discussion, however, it does not condone any form of unlawful behaviour on the part of any student or staff member.

    The statute of King George V that stands outside the Howard College Building has been splattered with white paint and graffiti. The University is investigating the unlawful actions


    As per previous comment …

    So tell me where it all ends ?


    March 26, 2015 at 15:12

  4. Sorry about leaving such a long comment on you blog, but I just wrote about the statue myself and thought you may be interested – and I don’t have a blog I could direct you to.

    Re-educating Rhodes
    By Jared Jeffery

    What should be done with UCT’s Rhodes statue? Some want it torn down. Destroyed. Eliminated. As if doing so would erase the man’s legacy, restore dignity, and turn the clock back to a more innocent time. But time only moves in one direction and – failing some cataclysmic event – civilization is unlikely to forget Rhodes. Revenge would be empty and fleeting.

    Others would have it removed from campus to a museum where it can be contextualized, sanitized, dismissed. Out of sight out of mind may seem the best we could hope for, but I feel we could do better.
    UCT is a place of learning. Even with the controversy stirred up by protesters saying that the university is too Western and unAfrican, it cannot be denied that no matter the culture, a university is by definition a place of learning. Thus, it would seem that the most appropriate use of the statue would be to have it used as a learning aid.

    What lesson should we use the statue to convey?

    There is the obvious one: racism is bad. Perhaps we could use the statue to shame racists – to get some revenge through degrading the image of a prominent historical racist. But I think this lesson is banal. “Racism is bad”: it doesn’t seem like a weighty enough lesson for a world-class university to have to teach. Besides, shame is not often held aloft as the best didactic method.

    I think the lesson should be about optimism. Specifically, optimism about the role of education in transforming our country and bridging the divides that still animate angry crowds. Not just education as an institution on a hill only money can buy, but the basic process of knowledge creation and transmission.
    The pessimistic view states: might makes right. When the Rhodes statue was erected, whites had might and honoring Rhodes was right. Tearing down the statue implicitly means that we agree with this view. Holding and teaching this view to a new generation condemns us to continue the cycle that started an infinite regress ago and must stop with us if the future is to be any better,

    The optimistic view, that I feel the statue should be used to teach, is that through knowledge we can break the cycle of might means right. Appeals to authority are trumped by truth every time. The university is an open arena in which the ideas that drive a society are created, challenged, improved. Through the process our parochial circumstance – our particular culture, particular race, particular gender – is overcome and we can uncover deeper truths. Truths that, if Rhodes had been open to them, would have altered our history.
    It’s too late to teach Rhodes. His cruelty was a failure of his knowledge. We shouldn’t forgo this opportunity to use his failure as a lesson for future generations. Might is not right. Right is the outcome of a process of open learning and debate. We need to re-educate Rhodes (the symbol – the statue) so that he learns this lesson and passes it on to future generations.

    Now, I’m no artist, so I wouldn’t want to dictate how this would be done. However, the statue’s pose – with Rhodes pensively looking ahead – seems ideal for having him learn a lesson. Let’s move the statue to another part of the campus and put Rhodes back in a classroom and teach him the lesson we wish he had learnt all those years ago.


    March 21, 2015 at 19:51

  5. Was with you until this.”What is happening to them is much the same as what happened to blacks during apartheid.” The xenophobia in this country is horrible and our government has done a lot to worsen (especially looking at recent commentary from them) but to equate it to Apartheid is trivialize the crime against humanity that apartheid was and to indicate a gross misunderstanding of what it really was and what impact it continues to have.

    Xenophobia in South Africa is largely a result of socio-economics, a battle between have-nots. Now you have a bunch of South African have nots who just stepped of decads of aparthied rule with a promise (often exaggerated) of a better life, instead they continued to wallo in poverty or everyday struggle. They see people from outside of the country seemingly making money easily, and making money off them. If you would understand the dynamics of blacks you would understand where the xenophobia comes from. Its also largely a self-hate mentality which targets blackness, a mentality installed through centuries of colonialism.

    Otherwise I appreciate the spirit of your article and I think crafting the future unified SOuth Africa is our biggest challenges.


    March 21, 2015 at 15:36

    • Sinethemba: You are right. I have no idea what it was like being black during apartheid. I will never know. But your comments on xenophobia sound eerily familiar to the comments of the poor Afrikaner white during the 1930s, when they were complaining about the English and the Jews stealing all their jobs. And, of course, the blacks. It was this sense of injustice that lead them to crimes against humanity. Our generation’s job, therefore, is to ensure that the same sense of injustice is not used to justify the atrocities that is committed against foreigners today, however well we can explain its causes.

      Johan Fourie

      March 21, 2015 at 18:09

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