Killing statues

Men could build mountains just to have their names remembered if they could. In fact, they have built entire cities that are jungles of steel and concrete for the sole purpose of being remembered forever, as if there is a forever. In my opinion forever is a non-existent figment of the narcissist’s imagination that holds the false notion that eternity is a measurable entity, which it is not for nothing lasts forever. Eternity and oblivion are equidistant in the mind and in the body, and in the spirit.

The arguments from both sides of the debate on statues are valid, but the one question that nags one is: why is it that human civilisation finds human and other effigies rendered in marble, bronze and other metals bones of contention? Why should the sculpted figure of an individual be the cause to chaos as we have seen in the post-George Floyd murder by the police events? We have seen acts of pillaging and sheer rampage committed in the name of removing colonial monuments and statues, as if such figures whose statues were being attacked were actually alive or cared.

Remember the looting and uprising that followed #Rhodesmustfall in South Africa a few seasons ago, remember the toppling of the statues of Saddam and Gadaffi, remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and many other falls of statues. The demolition of monuments and statues puts into question the verity of the arguments around the erection or wrecking of statues.

The airplane that takes off from Moshoeshoe I international airport will land at O. R. Tambo International. The latter airport is still Jan Smuts Airport in my mind, though I know that calling it such could draw fire from certain quarters despite me holding the right to keep my own arguments and opinions. The basic assertion I hold is that the new post-apartheid government should have simply built their own airport and named it after their own ‘struggle’ heroes and not just usurped the name and placed their own hero’s name over that of the old.

Jan Smuts still stays as General Jan Smuts in my mind, and he did play a part in transforming the progress of the country of his birth and death into a state and a nation. Erasing his name for the sake of another is just plain vindictive self-worship on the part of the former struggle heroes.

In fact, such a name change defies the basis of the tenets of forgiveness and reconciliation many of the post-independence movements often proclaim in their lobbying speeches. Erasing a name and assuming the habit of the owner of the name simply means that there was a form of covetousness for the countenance and character somewhere deep in the psyche of whoever goes and changes street names and the names of buildings constructed in the colonial era. One who claims to hate the system of colonialism only to put their name on some colonial era infrastructure is in plain terms the expression of hypocrisy based on personal interest.

The renaming of various buildings, roads, and even spaces for the sake of ‘honouring’ certain individuals is in itself an expensive process. The exercise is a narcissistic affair executed largely for the sake of political appeasement of those supposedly hurt by the previous regimes, and a type of ‘thank you’ token done more for the sake aggrandisement than real honour. It serves the living none to change a street’s name because it actually robs them of the funds that could be better used to ease the burden of their travails in the face of poverty, disease, and unemployment.

Those who find the exercise necessary may be justified in their pursuit, with the basic argument being that the said hero or heroine needs to be honoured in one way or another. This is a valid argument in the case where the honouring of such a dead hero or heroine does not infringe on the funds of the state coffers that could be better used to serve the living, or, if such an honour does not re-ignite the pain felt by a certain section of society.

To erect monuments in memory of contested figures and to hand out posthumous honours whilst the world of the living is crumbling around the living poor is in my terms hypocrisy, for you cannot appease one side at the expense of the other if the concept of justice is followed to its core. What does a bronze statue give to the nation anyway? Only pride I guess, and pride is a dangerous vice to have.

Those figures that really understand themselves see no necessity in being epitomised after they are dead and gone, for they know that they have done enough in their lifetimes to be remembered on the lips of the people they came across. There is just no need for a plaque or epitaph on their graves or crypts, for their lives are in themselves a book that shall be read by the following generations of believers and non-believers in their cause.

The erection of a statue is just that, erection of a monument in stone or metal bearing the countenance of the figure who lived life to the full for the sake of not only himself, but for the sake of others as well. I have always been a staunch follower of the Cuban form of communism (not those other vague forms whose head and tail are found somewhere in the depths of capitalism: the masquerading type of communism without real communal love for other peoples of the world.

The Cuban doctors around the world this point in time are the direct fruits of the Cuban Revolution, and they are saving the world), and my belief in this system of social living was based in the real lives of the two leading figures in its origins, that is Commandante Fidel Castro and Commandante Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna.

One was a lawyer and the latter was a qualified medical professional, two professions that throw man into the thick of the bane of social maladies, leading the practitioner thereof into the face of all that is bothering mankind on a daily basis, leaving him a better individual in terms of understanding humanity and humanness.

For these types of people, the idea that all we are is dust in the wind is a reality that they live to the point beyond death and that is one of the main reasons why they shun the type of praise the capitalist always showers on their most loyal dog of war. Being kind to others is not worthy of praise, and sacrifice for the sake of others is not worthy of endless honours, for then it defies the spirit with which such a deed was made, selflessness needs no motivation for it is in its makeup the very expression of who God is, that one shall love their neighbour as they love themselves, meaning that one naturally would wish no ill to fall upon their neighbour regardless of whether such an individual is not their kith or kin.

The expectation is not that they will be lauded for their act of courage in the name of the welfare of others; acknowledgement in the form of respect is enough. It is only the leader whose deeds bred emptiness, poverty, and desolation who works really hard to be honoured for doing what they took an oath to perform for the citizens of their land (with the palm on the Bible or some holy book).

These ones’ promises are as empty as the belly they often enter the seats of governance with, and their demand for praise matches their loquacity. All of us are but dust in the wind, and our acts of charity are in fact the rent we pay for our stay on earth graciously given to all of us, so said Muhammad Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay the boxer). The modern politician needs to remember that before jumping into honours for vague glories.

An article from The Guardian (3 December 2016) published after the death of Fidel Castro and covering his brother Raúl’s declaration that his government would prohibit the naming of streets or public monuments after his brother Fidel in keeping with the leader’s (Fidel’s) desire to avoid developing a personality cult. Told to a crowd gathered to pay homage to Fidel, this declaration sealed my admiration to the man I consider to be one of the most selfless human beings I have come across in my brief lifetime. Raúl was honouring his brother’s desire that:

“Once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statues or other forms of tribute would never be erected”.
The ‘mates’ or comrades in arms on the African mainland have a different view, naming everything in memory of their late ‘struggle’ friends and affiliates and erecting statues in the same places where those they toppled once stood.

It does not make common sense to me why other statues are not worthy of standing in given political eras when all statues stand for one thing, re-memory and history. There is no way one can erase history, and I find the exercise of speaking in the name of erasing the memory of a long gone past a futile affair (useless in fact).

Toppling a statue only removes the statue from its pedestal but does not erase its memory in the minds of those that know where it stood (see the blatant refusal by Belgium to beg for forgiveness despite the atrocities King Leopold committed in the Congo: what will toppling his statue serve when there is no acknowledgement of his heinous crimes in Africa?).

Erecting or toppling a statue does not erase or strengthen the memory of the figure in whose name it stood or will stand: what is done is done as much as what will be will be. Arguing over the toppling or the erection is a waste of valuable time for nature would still go on and do the job of toppling the statue at a lesser cost than the original erectors actually paid to have it stand on its pedestal. Occultic in nature, the practice of raising statues and changing names like they are some totemic figures actually infringes on the time that could be spent to address clear current and prevalent challenges society is facing: we could step up our fight against Covid-19 instead of focusing on killing statues of tyrants and masochists.

We cannot speak ill of the dead, it is a waste of breath and time because the dead are dead and do not have any worldly care; this is one of the reasons why one finds a known criminal named ‘an honourable man’ at his funeral. This is not done for the sake of lying to the listeners, it is so done to help them forget and to heal from the pains they felt in such a figure’s lifetime, for the future offers more promise than what is past and dead.

It is a fact that we do not honour our past, and if some country finds it suitable to honour our heroes, I find the heckling over the erection of a monument in their name insulting not only to the memory but also to the intelligence of those that see it fit to do so. We are a country that at this point needs to forget, so that we can begin to forgive, so that we can reconcile and restore our land. This is what reform is about, not statutes about statues of past leaders that actually got this country somewhere instead of the nowhere we now find ourselves in.

Dealing with pandemics needs concerted effort, perhaps some of the statues are a plague that needs to be eradicated as we are dealing with the Coronavirus. However, the current spate of attacks on monuments and statues will drain effort that could be better focused on dealing with the rising Covid-19 pandemic; we will have the time to remove the figures of tyrants, slave drivers, and megalomaniacs that dot our cityscapes.

Depleting our energy on mass protests in a time when social-distancing is encouraged as a deterrent to the spread of the virus defies the basic purpose of the campaign to rid the world of the spread of the virus. This means that the rendition of the tyrant or the slave-master may actually kill more people than he did in his lifetime. Gathered around the statue made of brass, the living actually risk raising levels of infection because of the close proximity in which they work to take the statue off its pedestal.

There shall be time to melt the statues and to remove the plaques at their feet. Throwing them into the sea like it was done in England recently means that the statue will still be there underwater. Defacing them will not erase them from the pictures. The bigger picture says we should focus on the fight against the Coronavirus. Forget the statues and stay safely indoors for now.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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