HERITAGE SYMBOLS IN A POST-COLONIAL CONTEXT: public debate, 29 June 2015

AV_00049580 It felt like tonight’s debate hosted by AFAI in partnership with the District Six Museum was a mere scratch on a delicate surface. Strong, passionate views were expressed, some directly relating to the topic being discussed while others were in a vague way inspired by the topic, providing an opportunity for dearly-held views to find expression and responses. Panellists Mohammad Shabangu from the Open Stellenbosch Movement, Gcobani Sipoyo from SAHRA (South African Heritage Resources Agency), Ashraf Jamal (CPUT) and Brian Kamanzi (Rhodes Must Fall Movement) had the unenviable task of presenting their views on the topic, defending their positions while at the same time provoking challenges. I had a sense that not many positions shifted during the course of the evening. I might be wrong. It seems that those who came there because they supported the removal of statues left there with those views intact; the same for those who came to defend the right of monuments to remain despite changed sensibilities and sensitivities. And while the intention of the evening was never to come up with an action plan or a unified ‘line’ to be toed, its humble but important intention of contributing to the body of opinions and information needed in order for us to discover sensible pathways to humane memorialisation made much smaller steps than my idealistic side would have hoped for. Meaningful dialogue that leads to change of some kind is really hard. I was reminded of that again tonight. I myself have shifted from my original view on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, having always believed that statues and monuments of an offending past should remain as signs of their times, and contemporary interpretations in words and art-forms should become the shape of their present iterations. The wholesale removal of statues seemed to create a whole new set of problems: what would become of them?; would they be replaced?; by what? And although this evening’s debate was not only about the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, it certainly provided a substantial mould which has shaped related debates over the past while. I have come to believe that the removal of the offending monolith was the correct action not for all statues across the country, but certainly in this context. And whatever else happened or did not happen during this process, transformation at UCT certainly moved several visible steps up on the institution’s agenda. Having shifted in my stance, I find myself somewhat unable to move from what I hold to be true and correct, shaping, I am sure, the way that I listen to others, and displaying even if in a small way, the very characteristic that I am critiquing. Despite our collective frustrations at talk-shops, we still need many more conversations about conversations in the midst of our actions and activism. A number of issues emerged and remain to be foregrounded: how do we speak across disciplines and linguistic registers – in the same language – without being patronising and dumbing down on high-level issues? How do we stop ourselves from the tendency to respond to actions by others with an approach of saying ‘but what about housing?’; ‘what about poverty?’ While these are important questions for all of us to answer, we cannot hold everyone accountable for tackling all of these with equal vigour. How do we find pathways for finding solutions which can accommodate divergent views? How do we move beyond saying that matters are ‘complex’ which sometimes is used as a reason never to embark on an action. How do we accept that the role of the teacher and the taught are interchangeable roles throughout our lives, and only a small part of this is enacted in institutions of learning? Have we sufficiently understood the link between reconciliation and memorialisation, and whether transformation can manifest as a continuum or whether a rupture is a prerequisite for true transformation. It was a good discussion. A summary of the main points will illustrate this. These are merely my reflections on the general interaction as the moderator of the debate and does not constitute a record of the substantive discussion points. At the start of this piece of writing I referred to some people who raised issues which were in a vague way inspired by the topic, providing an opportunity for dearly-held views to find expression and responses. I suppose I was one of that group as these issues are all close to my surface.

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