Cecil Rhodes and Mohandes Gandhi in South Africa

The statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed after 81 years. A few days later, a statue of Mohandes Gandhi was vandalized. What can these two events tell us?

It was Rhodes who funded the racist establishment of white minority rule in the South African region. When I read that the statue of Cecil Rhodes had been removed from its plinth at the University of Cape Town after being smeared with shit, I recalled the TV miniseries (1996) that captured the life and legend of the establishment man. I saw each glamorized episode of the mini-series on PBS; I cannot remember the fine details now.

(Image credit: Mike Hutchings/Reuters via The Guardian)

Four days after Rhodes’s statue was removed, Gandhi’s statue in Johannesburg was also vandalized. Gandhi is “the hero of anti-colonial rule”; the role model for Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. But the vandalism of Gandhi’s statue has unveiled again uncomfortable truths about Mahatma. I saw the gripping movie about his life starring Ben Kingsley on the big screen; I cannot remember the details now.

(Image source)

The wikipedia version of the Gandhi legend acknowledges that he shared racist views “prevalent of the times and that his experiences in jail sensitized him to the plight of South Africa’s indigenous peoples.” So, Gandhi’s racist views in his early years and segregationist ideas when he was in South Africa are not in dispute. The Encyclopedia Britannica says this about Gandhi’s sojourn in South Africa: “What he did to South Africa was indeed less important than what South Africa did to him.”

In 1993, at the unveiling of the Gandhi statue, Mandela gave a speech praising Gandhi. Mandela reportedly said: “This event is also very significant because we are unveiling here the very first statue of an anti-colonial figure and a hero of millions of people worldwide. Gandhiji influenced the activities of liberation movements.”

Cecil Rhodes was perhaps 40 years old when Gandhi, aged 24, arrived in Natal. By then Cecil Rhodes was a very wealthy man, well on his way to becoming the establishment man for minority rule in the region. The racist superstructure of British and Afrikaner colonial rule was under construction. This was the superstructure of racism that erected Apartheid.

The official legacy of Gandhi is the struggle for freedom. But I am nonplussed by the meaning of the vandalism of Gandhi‘s statue. Is it all forgiven, the virulent racist writings of the young Gandhi? Or does it even matter anymore?

Programming Alert: “Promised Land”

Fire up your DVR’s.  Tonight, PBS’s documentary series POV is airing “Promised Land” about the struggle over land in post-apartheid South Africa.  It should be quite interesting.  Here’s a brief synopsis:

Though apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, economic injustices between blacks and whites remain unresolved. As revealed in Yoruba Richen’s incisive Promised Land, the most potentially explosive issue is land. The film follows two black communities as they struggle to reclaim land from white owners, some of whom who have lived there for generations. Amid rising tensions and wavering government policies, the land issue remains South Africa’s “ticking time bomb,” with far-reaching consequences for all sides. Promised Land captures multiple perspectives of citizens struggling to create just solutions.

Enjoy! And, of course, feel free to drop a comment here if you get a chance to see it.

Bring Me My Machine Gun! South Africa and the Consequences of Apartheid

This past week Eugene Terreblanche, an Afrikaner white supremacist, was murdered by two black farm workers in South Africa. It has become painfully clear that the Rainbow Nation has very far to go to become such. And my prediction is that the growing pains will track a slow and low gradient. Writing for the BBC, Peter Burdin, sounds a distressful note:

(South Africa) is officially the most unequal society on earth…South Africa is also among the most violent societies outside war zones with 18,000 murders a year…Race permeates all aspects of life here.

For about 46 years – from 1948 to 1994 (when Nelson Mandela was elected in the first multi-racial democratic elections) – the Nationalist Party and white South Africans managed to forge an uneasy, volatile but successful system of racial separation and oppression. They managed to create what the Confederate States in the United States of America could not achieve. Apartheid was indeed a strange thing; within the country, there were white provinces where passbooks were required of all non-whites and there were ‘independent’ Bantustans which were the domain of blacks. It was a wicked system that denied rights to the majority black population. We know the familiar story by now; the story of how Madiba nurtured the emergent so-called post apartheid rainbow nation. De Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Madiba, realized that apartheid was not sustainable; besides, international sanctions against South Africa had undermined the government’s viability.

While other African countries are convulsed by ethnic divisions, South Africa is caught in the throes of racism – something we know a lot about in the United States of America. We must understand the Afrikaner mind-set; since their Dutch forebears settled in South Africa, they’ve been fighting two conflicts: one against British imperialism (The Boer Wars) and another against the indigenous inhabitants. The Boer War in 1899 was brutal and notorious for the concentration camps set up by the British that killed several thousands of Afrikaner women and children (Brian Bunting, 1969 The Rise of The South African Reich). But independence was not the only thing the Afrikaners desired; they wanted to retain their perceived superiority over the indigenous inhabitants. Brian Bunting writes (p14):

The Boer republics constituted an anachronism to the 20th century. Their code of conduct (was) incompatible with the liberal philosophy of modern capitalism. In the (republic of) Transvaal constitution it was written that there could be no equality between Black and White in Church or State.

The British imperialists were complicit in not extending any kind of rights to non-whites after the second Boer War and they accommodated the color-bar with its pass-book restrictions ensuring that racial integration would not happen. This is what the Afrikaners wanted.

So in 2010, racial accommodation is still a societal problem in South Africa. Public opinion data from the Afrobarometer surveys in 1999 depict these racial tensions in South Africa. When asked how they identified themselves, more South Africans chose race. Race polarizes in South Africa much in the same way that ethnicity polarizes in other African societies.

Some Afrikaners think that Eugene Terreblanche’s murder was provoked by the African National Congress (ANC) youth leader, Julius Malema, who sang the anti-apartheid song “Shoot the Boer.” The ANC has reportedly ordered its members not to sing the song at rallies any longer because it stokes racial tensions. There is another song “Bring me my machine Gun” often heard at youth ANC youth rallies, which refers to the struggle to topple the apartheid regime; this was the song used by Jacob Zuma during his campaign for the Presidency. Unwilling to be dominated by the British during the emergent years of their republic, the Afrikaners are now troubled by the domination of the Africans (credit eric). Their fears are not unfounded; there are reports that approximately 3,000 Afrikaner farmers have been murdered since this new dispensation in South Africa. These cold cases make the Afrikaners anxious and unsure about their place in the Rainbow Nation.

When the accused black men were arraigned at the court in the town of Ventersdorp, there were reports of Eugene Terreblanche’s paramilitary group waving placards with Afrikaner nationalist symbols. The reporter notes:

Time has stood still here…there is a silent message that this is no place for blacks.