Watch where you walk – even the statues have feet of clay

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Photo of Bill Nasson: provided

It is now June 2020, and daily life in the world appears to have become engulfed in a thick mixture of apprehension, fear, confusion, unpredictability, stargazing, doom-mongering and what might best be called vertigo. When things are moving, it looks as if no one quite knows exactly where to. Or, if we’re being taken on a ride, it is difficult to identify what, precisely, the forces are that are making the decisions about how we stay afloat in an uncomfortably vulnerable present, and about how to navigate our voyage into a rocky future. Identifying and explaining why and how society finds itself in a comprehensive crisis and finding a cure have become an increasingly frenzied mission for all sorts of pontificating commentators. 

In his 2002 memoir, Interesting times, the great historian Eric Hobsbawm remarked of the 1930s that “we lived in a time of crisis”. However self-evident, that observation is a timely reminder of an earlier modern age steeped in a language of anxiety, alarmism, foreboding, uncertainty and fury. Today, although we may not be approaching the abyss of 1939, we live in a time infected not merely by a catastrophic global virus, but by a sense that much of the world is overcome by a state of general malaise. 

To the world’s grim realities of poverty, inequality, racial and gender subjugation, climate change, authoritarian nationalism, violence, social media lunacies, intolerant zealotry and mostly woeful leadership, can now be added the calamity of the worst global pandemic since the 1918–1919 “Spanish” flu. From the vantage point of looking back on history, it looks as if the morbid 1930s notion of a diseased civilisation in need of healing and complete rehabilitation – the world as a patient, you might say – has perhaps never really gone away. As with those chiliastic religions of earlier centuries, there’s an appetite for metaphysical options – either an impending Armageddon or the possibility of redemption through a thorough cleaning out of everything bad. And, as the present crisis has become continuously enlarged by the forceful language used to describe it – whether by the promises of crusading radicals or by the predictions of pessimistic conservatives – it has almost developed a muscular reality of its own. 

Those of a certain despairing age who find ourselves squatting in the shadow of this sorry state of affairs should perhaps be forgiven for wanting to retreat to the songs of Leonard Cohen in a suitably sanitised, damp room smelling of cigarette smoke and KWV brandy. Even that might not be without difficulty. Given the enthusiasm of South Africa’s present minister of police in enforcing the tobacco ban during his country’s lockdown, those pre-26 March 2020 till slips would need to be fished out to prove the legal purchase of those Camel filters. Then, with South Africa remaining ever the land of possibility, who knows, we might even see a Camel go through the eye of a needle. That miracle would be the equivalent of this country’s cabinet ministers trading down to Toyota Corollas. 

Still, it would make a thrifty contribution to a “reimagined” or “rebirthed” or “remade” post-COVID world, based on what we are being told repeatedly is coming around the corner – a fundamental adjustment to the “new normal” of a transformed everyday human existence. For the most part, this appears to be a breathless celebration of a digitally driven work and leisure utopia, and a sobering anticipation of a more stiff and sterile interaction of bodies and social spaces. 

As to the former, this visionary social and cultural architecture is, of course, very much a middle-class construction. Before anyone gets too carried away by a tide of endless possibilities, it is useful to ponder an observation made this past April by British political theorist Maurice Glasman. Memorably up to date, it propounded that the new definition of working class had now become “being unable to work from home”. In that sense, far from changing the real meaning of labour, the present crisis has once again clarified its essence. Its distinctiveness is that it requires a real physical presence. Far from something that can be done from home, labour involves leaving home and doing something, usually involving your hands, for other people. Alongside endless excitement over the miracle of Zoom, perhaps the new normal could include a fresh recognition of the value of labour for our collective well-being and survival. 

To prepare for the other contingency – how to buckle down to a new routine of hygienic remoteness – you could do little better than watch those crusty English TV drama series, Downton Abbey and The crown

In general, then, will the promise of a “new normality” turn out to be our future? Only time will tell. And, as the clock ticks, let’s not forget a famous old quip from former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. In 1971, asked for his view of the 1789 French Revolution, he answered that it was “too soon” to say. 

While we wait, New Zealand may have provided a tiny, early glimpse of what may be lying ahead in a post-pandemic universe. There, the new normal resembles something that looks rather like the old normal, including rugby, with the exception of some colonial statues being toppled. Not all are old. One, of a 19th century British military commander, was donated to the city of Hamilton and installed in 2013. With Hamilton being described as a mass murderer by local Maori activists and antiracism protestors, the statue of Captain John Hamilton has been removed by authorities to pre-empt it being vandalised or torn down. Through a pivotal event in that small municipal corner of a Pacific island, the old world and the new world seem to have become one.

It goes almost without saying that a symptom of our current, troubled world is having to contend with a whole rash of pivotal events, such as the continuing coronavirus episode, the sweeping consequences of the US police killing of George Floyd accompanied by the emergence of the Black Lives Matter spectacle, and the controversy over statues, monuments and memorials. To the universal impact of these events can be added South Africa’s own recent episodes. These would include, obviously, the brutal killing of Collins Khosa by thuggish members of the nation’s security forces under the pandemic lockdown emergency. No less obvious would be the headlong plunge into an ever deeper level of economic mess, although that by now has come to feel less like a pivotal event and more like yet another long cold night in an endless winter, with cold tinned beans for supper and a new round of electricity cuts expected at any moment. Or perhaps it will be the flood without Noah’s ark, given the minister of finance’s growing enthusiasm for reciting from the Bible.

Never mind, it need not be all doom and gloom. For a country which is usually behind and only very rarely ahead of the rest, when it comes to the contemporary statue wars, South Africa can proudly claim to have made a head start with the cry of “Rhodes must fall” from the University of Cape Town’s pioneering apostles of decolonisation. The story of the removal of that musty imperial idol from his pedestal and of the scattered eruptions around monuments that followed has been told brilliantly by Christopher Hope in his 2018 The Café de Move-on Blues: In search of the new South Africa. At one point, the author reminds us of an earlier anti-British imperialist moment, now all too easily – or conveniently – forgotten. In the 1950s, some militant Afrikaner students at UCT called for the figure of Rhodes to be demolished. Were they, just like their more successful black nationalist campus counterparts half a century later, seeking to make a present history by obliterating a past history? Put another way, could it be said that the virtuous crowds that have been hunting down statues of European slave-traders to demolish haven’t been erasing history? Arguably, they’ve been making it in a new image.

That brings us to the renewed fuss over statues, something which reminds us that while COVID-19 may have killed off kissing, it hasn’t killed off cultural controversy. What is there to learn from history about public monuments in this or in any other country? A basic consideration is that whatever the figure, it has a life history of its own, and, like other kinds of public sculpture, it could shed light on the meaning of what it may have once represented, and take on a new significance in subsequent years. That could include fading away into an impotent insignificance. In the case of ancient Rome, for instance, it was common for bronze statues of great Roman emperors to be erected and then later demolished. This had nothing to do with ideological symbolism and everything to do with the republic’s money system. Thus, when Nero found himself short of metal to turn into coins, the most convenient solution was to melt down a statue of his predecessor, Claudius. In the case of the Roman Empire, dealing with statues really was part of business as usual.

In other historical epochs, the convulsive experiences of wars and revolutions have seen statues in places such as public squares and open gardens become the focus of public protests and the object of outraged street crowds. In New York in 1776, anti-monarchist American patriots pulled down a statue of King George III. In a later century, on the very first day of the 1956 revolutionary Hungarian uprising against Soviet Russia’s oppressive control of Eastern Europe, a towering statue of Stalin was defaced by cheering protestors and pulled down from its lofty pedestal. In that region decades later, plenty of boisterous East Germans, along with Russians and others, turned out to shout, “Goodbye, Lenin,” while in Spain, a last rusty public statue of its 1939–1975 fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, was finally hauled down in 2008. A local mayor and his town council had had enough of the generalissimo and his horse being splashed regularly with red paint, and had the effigy carted off to continue its lingering afterlife in a museum. One could go on multiplying further conspicuous examples, not least the pulling down by US marines of a statue of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in Baghdad in 2003. In that distinctively American phrase, intended as a dismissive put-down, it was declaring that “you’re history”.

While today’s worldwide reckoning with statues may revolve almost exclusively around the brutal enslavement, exploitation and oppression of black people as legacies of empire and white supremacy, the point is that for all its headline-grabbing, it is also history. Across time and place, the world has been here before. Statues themselves are not history. It is when there is debate about them that they enter history, in a manner of speaking. Monuments which glorify past power can always be in trouble when there are sharp shifts in values and beliefs, and when pockets of public opinion become powerful enough to take direct action against contested symbols. Statues, Simon Schama argued a few weeks ago, are “revelations” not so much about “the historical figures they represent”, but about the minds “of those who commissioned them”. Their creation was a political act, just as “the Men in Stone” (as Schama calls them) were frequently politically controversial themselves during their own lifetimes. To pick out just two, President Paul Kruger of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek was publicly synonymous with corruption and scandal – almost the Jacob Zuma of his day. As for the dubious Cecil Rhodes, his ruthless brand of buccaneering capitalism was even satirised in the Victorian comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. In their 1889 The gondoliers, Rhodes was the model for the amoral and rapacious Duke of Plaza-Toro. 

If those who later put them on a pedestal were engaging in a political act, clearly the same could be said about those who set out to overthrow them, to dump them in a warehouse or to remove them for historical reinterpretation as problematic museum pieces. At the same time, it’s also worth remembering that it’s often only when statues are menaced that they are even noticed by casual passers-by. For the better part of a century, how many UCT students and visitors to the campus would’ve paused before the brooding, pigeon-spattered image of Rhodes for an animated discussion of his deplorable mission to cement the imperial supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race? 

Ultimately, if statues of such historical figures are to continue to disappear, it ought not to be through arbitrary acts of vandalism in which they end up being dumped into rivers or onto rubbish dumps. That does nothing for a culture of debate, which is vital to the health of any kind of proper historical education. In a very recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Graça Machel declared herself to be “not for the destruction of statues and symbols” linked to an oppressive colonial past, as they were “essential memories” of the past which would have to be preserved for the “consciousness of future generations”.

As with us, and those who preceded us, the time will come to face those perennial and large historical questions – who and what are we as a country and a nation? What have we been? Where are we heading? Are those Men in Stone on their messy plinths any help to understanding our complicated historical predicament? If that translates into a witch-hunt of statues of prominent people who now deserve condemnation for their past reprehensible beliefs and misdeeds, it may be a salutary reminder of an inescapable truth. As all history is present history, not only can the revered heroes of yesterday be judged as the villains of today, but those selected for public commemoration in the present can also end up with feet of clay in the future.

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