Stability Watch

Statue attacks started with Tambo and not Rhodes

Tambo monument the first target

The present trend of vandalising statuary of historic figures started with an attack on a statue dedicated to erstwhile ANC president Oliver Tambo and not with the one celebrating Rhodes at UCT.

What has emerged from what seems to be an epidemic of vandalism that spiked during the second week of April, is a widespread and confusing mix of targets, suggesting that it might be a proxy for something else brewing in society.

The question may also be asked whether it is coincidence that this phenomenon coincides with the resurgence of incidents of xenophobia, first occurring in Gauteng and now causing havoc in KZN.

The first incident of the recent spate of vandalism aimed at monuments/statues commemorating historic figures in South Africa dates back to 22 October last year. It occurred at Nkantolo village in Mbizana, Eastern Cape, on a heritage site declared in 2006, The incident included arson and target was a statue of ANC stalwart Oliver Tambo who was born in the area.

Next was the monument to Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), defaced by human waste on 9 March, followed by the King George V statue at the University of KZN, defaced with white paint on 26 March, the Anglo-Boer War statue in Uitenhage, a tyre set alight around his neck on 2 April, the Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth, taken down on 6 April and Paul Kruger’s statue in Pretoria, painted green.

On 10 April Queen Victoria (again PE) got a dose of green paint, after it had been General Louis Botha’s turn at parliament the previous day, followed the next day (11 April) by Marthinus Pretorius in Pretoria (red paint). On 12 April Gandhi’s statue in Johannesburg got its splash of white paint, on the same day that Boer general Jan Fick’s statue in Ficksburg, Free State, was vandalised.

And, just to spice up and confuse this mix of ‘victims’ of ‘statuephobia’: besides the horses in PE, the statues of two people who cannot remotely be linked to either colonialism or politics also became targets – the preacher and missionary Andrew Murray in rustic Wellington and, in Durban, the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who had spent ten of his childhood years between 1895 and 1905 in South Africa.

What is the link?

Besides the rhetoric and ‘threats’ by the Economic Freedom Fighters, who in the typical opportunistic style of all extremist groups, jumped on the bandwagon once it got moving, there might be a clue as to the underlying reasons in that first incident in Mbizana.

The Eastern Cape provincial commissioner, Lieutenant-General Celiwe Binta, immediately appointed a task team to investigate the incident and police arrested three people within days after the incident. However, nothing about the motives for the attack has yet emerged in the public domain.

News on the incident has gone quiet since they last appeared in the local magistrate court in December 2014 for a bail application.

Knowledgeable local observers told us that the incident is linked to factional battles in the area for control over development resources residing with the local government.

Speaking at the unveiling of a monument for murdered South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, during the week before last’s ‘statue-carnage’, President Jacob Zuma also implied that both the attacks on statues and incidents of xenophobia might be linked to people’s frustrations at their lack of economic progress.

While addressing both issues, he, especially on the question of xenophobia, was somewhat qualified in his condemnation of attacks on foreigners. He started off by saying that while there was merit in claims that many foreign-owned businesses operated illegally and without paying tax, there was no justification for attacking them.

“We ... emphasise that no amount of economic hardship and discontent will ever justify attacking foreign nationals,” he said before also calling on the Department of Home Affairs to improve the way in which it tracked illegal immigrants in the country.

During that same week the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, also touched on the underlying factors when addressing a gathering at the University of KZN, saying the issue of the statues was only the tip of the iceberg. It is not about the statues alone, but also about racial and economic inequality.

Among other things he said: “Vandalising and removing the statues will not erase the history of this country. Another thing that I am concerned about is the sudden resurgence of racism in the country. We don’t know, maybe the statues is a response to that.”

While professing his concern about the “resurgence of racism”, his message then became even more mixed than President Zuma’s as he went on to complain that South African professors are too “white”. Himself a ‘youthful’ 57, Nzimande also complained that at an average age of 55, the country’s professors were also “too old”.

He did admit that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) “... doesn’t have sufficient funds to enable all deserving students to be supported”.

By implication he also admitted that it contributed to the frustrations underlying some student actions, by saying he did not expect students to destroy infrastructure because they had been denied funding.

“It’s like a community that destroys a library when there are no services in the community – that does not make sense. And it is counter-revolutionary.”

That is where the minister is probably missing a point. Projecting their frustrations on the symbols at hand, might be to the students and impoverished communities the most efficient and potent way available to communicate their frustrations with their lived reality.

Part of the problem and often cause of the frustration lies at the feet of government itself.

The minister should perhaps think carefully about the implications of his own report issued when his department investigated corruption in NSFAS.

“We found out that some universities are selling NSFAS to students. We also know that some students are using the money to buy big television screens for their rooms and there are many more benefiting from NSFAS when they are not supposed to.” On that score, as is the case in all true democracies, the proverbial buck stops with him.

by Piet Coetzer

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