By Rachel Hatcher
[This is the eight and final post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]
Widespread student protests in 2015 and 2016 pushed the past into discussions about the South African present.
#RhodesMustFall asked why a rapacious and racist mining magnate was still honored in the so-called Rainbow Nation. Why did his statue still dominate at the University of Cape Town? Just how deeply this question resonated with students across the country can be seen roughly 900 kilometers to the east, in Grahamstown, at a university now referred to in more politically conscious circles as the university (or institution) currently known as Rhodes.
Though not the focus of the protests, #OutsourcingMustFall and #FeesMustFall also raised similar questions about which historical figures should be honored. In response, students took the initiative to re-name buildings on campuses throughout South Africa after Steve Biko, Solomon Mahlangu, and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. These and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle replaced Afrikaner nationalists and the architects of apartheid.
Why, 22 years after the official end of apartheid, should Rhodes and the others, all racist supporters of an unjust system, be honored instead of those who fought to destroy that system?
Nelson Mandela, who epitomizes the spirit of peace for so many, was significant in his absence.
But then again, why would he be on a list of struggle heroes? In a highly simplified version of events, the transition to democracy Mandela negotiated is to blame for the situation many black South Africans now find themselves in: landless, working in a neoliberal economy with insecure, low-paying, outsourced jobs with few benefits, unable to afford tuition fees. The women and men who had fought to defeat apartheid, and now their children, had and have a different vision of what post-apartheid South Africa would look like compared to the reality they now face.
Mandela gave up too much in the negotiations. To some he is a sell-out. To others, he is just a disappointment.
Why should student activists honor the man who failed to bring change to South Africa, the man who allowed especially the economic structures that were the foundation of apartheid to remain intact and exclusionary? For critical young South Africans today, for those who were supposedly “born free,” the meaning of “Mandela” is quite different than it is for the international community and many in the older generation.
Milan Kundera wrote of 1950s Czechoslovakia, “Wandering the streets that do not know their names are the ghosts of monuments torn down. Torn down by the Czech Reformation, torn down by the Austrian Counter-Reformation, torn down by the Czechoslovak Republic, torn down by the Communists; even the statues of Stalin have been torn down. In place of those destroyed monuments, statues of Lenin are nowadays springing up … by the thousands, springing up like weeds among ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.”
South Africa is saturated with Mandela. Saturated with the sheer number of Nelson Mandela Avenues. Mandela statues. Mandela souvenirs. Mandela everything. Indeed, after his death, his face was put on all the paper money. One wonders if the re-interpretation and re-analysis of Mandela’s achievements, role in history, and legacy will go so far as to insist that his avenues, statues, and souvenirs honor someone else. One wonders if, after the current wave of protests, demonstrations, and activism have achieved their goals, Mandela, too, must fall.