What do you mean when you say the Trump era? And how true is that assertion in the context of South Africa and even Africa’s realities? That was the first question problematizing our chosen topic, in what would turn out to be an intimate but highly stimulating discussion. To this initial salvo, the responses were swift, yet varied. From positions that expressed the need to recognize the reality of America’s dominance in world politics to assertions that Donald Trump is a representation of the re-emergence of right-wing nationalism; the consensus was that there has been a clear paradigm shift on the world stage which has brought to the fore many unspoken deep socio-political issues which had become submerged by the preceding atmosphere of political correctness and a false sense of the final attainment of true globalization.
A few days before the impromptu seminar, the brain child of Professor Susan Sterret, there had been increasing protests in the United States , with many calling for confederate statues, largely seen as a celebration of actors and ideals that represent slavery and oppression, to be pulled down. Social media was buzzing with strong opinions from both sides of the debate on the merits of keeping the confederate monuments. The events seemed almost reminiscent of the debates that preceded the eventual pulling down of the Cecil Rhodes statue at UCT.
The central question at the seminar thus became, how powerful are monuments and symbols? As an extension to this other questions arose : do monuments serve as an act of veneration or mere remembrance? Where do the lines become blurred? How far does one go to tear down monuments of people once held in esteem but found to have a checkered past? And do the sins of hero’s past trump (no pun intended) the achievements that led to their recognition in the first place?
Prof. Sterret was quite clear in her stance that remembrance does not need to become veneration. For her, museums are for the chronicling of history with all its quirks and wrong turns while statues are symbolic representations of the ideals a society holds in esteem and which it then celebrates in those it feels deserving of eternal remembrance. She however recognized that the troubling history of America and even South Africa and the actors that played a role in what history has now shown to be the wrong side of things, is sometimes the only tangible legacy of those who descend from these actors. As such for them, these monuments not only serve as their tether to their past but are a defensive push back against a version of history that paints their forebears as the villains. In her view, the way forward should recognize the deep meanings attached to identity while simultaneously requiring true introspection that recognises the atrocities committed in the past. Such an approach opens up the possibility of freedom from shame fostered by the knowledge that the legacy of hate is actively being corrected and acts of amendment are being pursued.
Subsequently, members of the audience stated their opinions on the way forward for such an approach in the South African context. Some speakers were however adamant that such a reconciliatory stance was difficult because those on whom a burden of restitution was placed felt no remorse to begin with. In the words of one speaker: how do you reconcile with someone who does not even think that he has wronged you and so does not even feel there is anything to reconcile over? The same speaker also took issue with what they saw as the dominant sentiment in South Africa- the obligation on the oppressed to pursue reconciliation.. In what was to be a timely intervention, another member of the audience raised the concern of legitimacy, access and agency. In her words, ‘I recognize the evil done by my ancestors and by people of my race over the years, but I also feel silenced and like I do not have a right to be part of the solution because I feel I am looked at as part of the problem’.
This elicited a flurry of interventions that centred on the need for inclusivity in charting the way forward for the decolonization project. Perhaps the most central take away, prompted by that intervention, was the need for reflexivity by all parties. In the words of a member of the audience, ‘one must be introspective and self-aware enough to realise their positionality and possible privilege coming into the discourse and engagement, otherwise you run the risk of being pretentious, abrasive and disingenuous’.
This post if part of a series of Reflection Pieces produced by staff, partners and associates of the Centre for Law and Society. These pieces are intended to be personal reflections of one or more individuals who attended an activity or event hosted by CLS. Decisions regarding structure and content are at the writers’ discretion.