At first I thought the F. W de Klerk letter was a hoax written to bait angered, self-righteous responses. It seems I was mistaken.
In this most unfortunate document, F. W de Klerk criticises the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement as “folly” but there’s little to indicate he’s engaged its proponents. He says students are “often full of sound and fury.” With that, he dismisses their historic contribution to the dismantling of unjust laws and regimes – their blood, sweat and tears – as “signifying nothing.”
#RhodesMustFall is happening because the white supremacy Rhodes stood for is still killing and othering people. We can only deny its impact in western and African societies over its victims’ dead bodies. Preserving the tactile historicity of history by sanitising and valorising its “heroes,” or whitewashing their eulogies, implies it is not so bad. I guess when you have seen enough of them, dead black people no longer have shock value.
Would we not understand if a Jewish community wanted a statue of Adolf Hitler removed from its midst? If so, de Klerk defending Rhodes’ statues because he “had an impact on history” tells me that while all races are equal, white ones are more equal than black ones with Indian and Coloured people fitting neatly along the spectral hierarchy – exactly as apartheid intended.
De Klerk further writes that no one should have a greater grudge against Rhodes than South African Dutchmen. He thusly ignores ongoing poverty and inequality still experienced by black people to a much greater extent than by white Afrikaans folks. That legacy is the centrepiece of Rhodes’ “impact on history”: he accomplished much of what he did “out of the kaffir’s stomach” and history is fair in remembering him the way he chose to be known.
Sanity would have such statues in history museums instead of standing triumphant in spaces. For those spaces are then characterised and contaminated by the tradition of power-over-others instead of power-with-others.
Statues stand in and for a particular version of “normal life,” and when we keep them, we give a nod to that and render normal the steps taken to reach it. The actions and statues of otherwise terrifying people become “normal” symbols in everyday scenery. The deed, the doer and the effect are all normalised; they go out of sight and out of mind, ironically, because they are ever hidden and decorated in plain sight. The severity of their evils is blunted by the dignity of the statues depicting the evildoers. It causes cognitive dissonance: how must I truly believe what so-and-so did was wrong if he is standing there like a right king?
We as society are actually saying you can get away with open, daylight genocide as long as you look normal and use state-sponsored violence to serve those within the status quo. You are then considered a hero. This shrugs the bloodiness of history off our shoulders and explains the glaring inequality it’s left us as something oppressed people have chosen or deserve. Because we know there is no way oppression could have been “normal,” we must blame the victims and fit everything they do into a framework we choose for them, one that explains or depends on their victimhood. Once we have decided what normal is and have silently normalised great evil, the oppressed “other” becomes guilty for their own suffering because they fail to fit the normality we have imposed. They become the ultimate explanation for the evil they have endured. It becomes our word against theirs (of course they are voiceless) and it all allows us to wash our hands clean of their suffering.
As long as the statues stand, victims are nameless, vanquished ghosts in history textbooks; we can bring them to mind and dismiss them at will; we can control how human they are to us because the past remains in the past. They’re not disturbing. The moment statues move as an act of real justice, the victims become real people who suffered and deserve to be vindicated even if it is posthumously. The rightness of the world that now is is called into question and its architects are held morally accountable along with its current beneficiaries.
De Klerk’s letter was an affront to the black liberation movement he seemingly sympathised with when he released Nelson Mandela from prison. With this one document, the cat of his apathy towards the struggle escaped the rainbow-coloured bag of processed and pre-packed platitudes and government spin.
It’s a testimony to struggle heroes’ nobility that they “allowed” the apartheid government to hold a referendum to ascertain whether the white people would generously bestow the privilege of voting onto black people. The liberation leaders could have mobilised scores of those frustrated black people to bring the system and everyone benefitting off of it to its knees instead. It could have been a bloodbath.
They chose peace and paid for it by letting the oppressive government dismantle the oppression seemingly on its own terms so it could save face. That referendum kept white people’s anxiety from spiralling out of control. For de Klerk to now call the #RhodesMustFall movement “misguided” is his taking the patience of frustrated black people for granted. It mistakes benevolence for weakness. It’s a slap in the faces of those people who made real sacrifices, conceded real rights and surrendered real freedoms, in the process he eventually received so much credit and prestige for.
If RMF is an empty and unfortunate act now, it is no more an act than what happened in the early 1990s, and he is being rather inconsistent if he criticises this movement without speaking out against the spin machinery that had him come out of the transition into democracy smelling like roses. We have read transcripts of meetings and talks: it appears de Klerk was sainted pretty much kicking and screaming, resisting at almost every turn to negotiate in good faith. He had the Nobel Prize and the halos and wings thrust upon him because the new government needed a big enough white co-player to help pull off a demonstration of cross-race cooperation: they needed to make the rainbow nation look believable at the highest levels of power. Does de Klerk really want to lecture the rest of us about the misguidedness of symbolic gestures? Then out of his own mouth the Nobel Prize is taken from him. Consistency demands as much. If he cannot stomach what he sees as the lie of the RMF movement, then no one with a shred of historic honesty will countenance his keeping the Prize a moment longer.
RMF replied to de Klerk, intimating that his shallow understanding of what he’s speaking about is emblematic of many white people’s refusal to come to grips with the system that was and in many ways is. The Nobel Peace Prize was a token of dignity placed on him as easily as the status of “non-racialist” was imputed onto everyone with little pressure to truly do the work it would take to fix the country. History tried to make de Klerk a hero and through him, write more white people onto the right side of a story they largely had not been paying attention to. But he was never interested in knowing what was at stake. So when the EFF demands that de Klerk be stripped of his Nobel Prize, I believe they’re demanding the fall of unearned privilege in all its manifestations, on any skin colour (that some of their leaders walk something other than their talk is another matter altogether): more sensitively, I sense they want white people strip themselves of the rainbow-nation status of “non-racialist” and “colourblind” until they come to grips with what happened before, during and after 1994.
“Apartheid,” observed Conrad Koch, “was in essence 50 years of affirmative action for white people, which came off the back of 300 years of affirmative action for white people, slavery and colonial conquest.” By squashing it into an atrocity smaller than the also atrocious captivity of Afrikaans people in concentration camps, de Klerk effectively says “What affirmative action for white people?” in unison with scores of white people who reply, “What white privilege?”
Some have said that de Klerk is old and shouldn’t be criticised. Perhaps. But the closing paragraph of his letter to The Times (intended as flippant, tongue-in-cheek lip service to Oriel College’s entertaining the that RMF may have a point) proves that he had a sufficiently clear understanding of the petition to render his dismissive attitude ever the more exceedingly callous. He effectively says, “Why not throw money at the problem instead of listening?” Why doesn’t he suggest they throw money at the problem as the College listens?
Because he refuses to give RMF credit for taking the reconciliation project deeper and further than he did. Compared to him, they are worthier of a Nobel Prize, and letting them win this battle will show how little he did for it compared to even these “misguided” students.
The request that he be stripped of the Prize is unfortunate, but it isn’t in itself vindictive. Someone may reply, “Change your vote, not who got Nobel Prizes in the 1990s!” Such have no idea what they’re truly asking for; how can they see enough of black people’s perspective(s) to be in a position to suggest an alternative to their existing voting pattern(s)? No doubt some black people want to take shelter under Rhodes’ statue and feel part of the world he created: others would prefer we all start over. Of course, as with statements about white people, there are generalisations and exceptions.
The point is, statues being pushed and de Klerk being stripped of his Prize should be comparatively small concessions. Thousands of service delivery protests in one year should serve as a warning of what can happen when people level their anger where it hurts the most and makes a real dent against those they see as the enemy. Am I making a threat? No; I am concluding my argument:
I believe we are left with three possible outcomes to this fiasco: de Klerk apologises, or de Klerk is stripped of his Prize, or we continue to see, in subsequent events, the gap between merely symbolic and purely destructive expressions of outrage narrow to collide into the bloodbath that could have been two decades ago.
The first two options (along with the fall of Rhodes in Oxford) would indicate that we are starting to humanise one another more than we normalise oppressive pasts.
That third possibility, however avoidable and unnecessary, would precipitate a version of South Africa I would not wish on my worst enemy.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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