So Rhodes has fallen…but it’s not really about the statue, is it?

“It all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves”

– Carl Jung, 1875-1961

I can’t remember when I came across this quote for the first time. I don’t remember the context; whether it was said to me or if I read it somewhere or if I stumbled on it online. But, as I read more and more about the statue protests of recent weeks it was something that kept on tugging on my thoughts.

Is Jung right, though? Are things really as  we see them, rather than what they really are? Truth is, I don’t know. At least, I don’t know if he’s right in every context. What I am sure of, though, is that if he was speaking about the statue protests he would be bang-on correct. I say this because, well, it’s not about the statues at all — even though it might look like it on the surface.

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, which is going to be taken down.
The statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, which is going to be taken down.

Statues never never harmed anyone — not statues of Cecil John Rhodes, any of the Voortrekkers, British monarchs or any of South Africa’s celebrated anti-apartheid activists. Statues, equally, have never really done anyone any good (except, maybe, the artists who got paid to erect them). Statues are completely unable to do bad or good. They’re inanimate, for crying out loud! You can try argue with me here, but unless you bring up something spectacularly brilliant, I’m not likely to agree with you.

So why, then, are so many people kicking up a fuss?

From UCT, Rhodes and UKZN students, to the EFF, and, most recently, to pro-Afrikaaner groups, everyone seems really pissed off about inanimate objects.

The answer is simpler than you might think: It’s got nothing to do with the statues. Instead, it’s about what the statues represent.

On Wednesday, April 8, I was at UKZN where Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande addressed students and varsity leadership (along with a handful of journos). Among loads of other things, he described the statues protests as “proxy” protests. I have always shared this sentiment in my own limited-understanding way, but it was the use of “proxy” that made sense to me. You see, it’s not really about the statues.

“The statue struggle is a proxy struggle. It’s time we confront the real issues of national reconciliation, transformation and economic empowerment because that is what lies at the heart of this. This is a deeper issue”

– Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande

You can read my full TimesLIVE piece about Nzimande’s address here.

The statues stand for something.

They are symbols of a racially divided past. But more than that, they’re symbols of how, 20-odd years after democracy, very little has changed for far too big a portion of the country’s population. Let’s be blunt here: black South Africans still bear the brunt of economic and social hardships. The statues are symbols of this.

And if you look at it like this, the protests will start to make sense.

Does the economy magically get better because Rhodes has fallen? No. Do shacks all of a sudden magically become decent houses because Rhodes has fallen? No. Does load-shedding magically end and Eskom woes magically cease? No.

Of course not. Don’t be foolish.

But has this started a national debate around transformation at South African universities? Yes. Has this started a debate the glorification of our apartheid and colonial pasts (in the form of statues that have, largely, pride of place)? Yes.

And that, in itself, is a good thing. Perhaps — and hopefully — when we get an understanding of why people are so angrily taking their frustrations out on inanimate statues, then we can start to start improving things.

Jung was right. Look at the statues the way they are, and not from narrow perspectives, and you’ll realise that it isn’t about the statues at all.

If you’re so inclined, you can read a really good piece by Prof Jansen, talking about how South Africans always go for the middle-ground.

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