Rhodes Must Fall and Khayelitsha riot

In the news today yesterday in Cape Town.

Disclaimer: I’ve only spent about 8 months in total in South Africa, so I cannot say I know South Africa or its history or culture or anything really, so this is an ignorant European’s view on the headlines today. I’ve been told it’s very European to be so politically correct. So maybe it’s a sign that I haven’t really integrated into South Africa that I start of with this disclaimer.

There had been some scuffle about Rhodes statue at the UCT (University of Cape Town) campus. Rhodes is seen as a symbol of European imperialism and keeping on honouring him with a statue isn’t right in post Apartheid South Africa, according to protesters. They are supported in this by
Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who became the third largest political party in South Africa at the elections last year, after the ANC, which has held an absolute majority since the first free elections and the DA, who has the majority in Cape Town.

The UCT decided to remove the statue, although this will take some time, since it’s national heritage. It will probably go to a museum. Also today some Afrikaner organisations like Front National (which I hope doesn’t have a link to the French racist party with the same name) called for respect of Afrikaner culture and heritage and against the removal of other statues like of Jan Van Riebeek. They call for respect of their culture and as a minority.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand all the cultural sensitivities of apartheid, but my impression, in comparing with the Belgian/Flemish/European context I grew up in and know well, is that while in Belgium and throughout Europe, the right and nationalist politicians ask minorities such as Muslims to integrate into Europe, and as such give up (part of) their culture, in the South African context, the white minority ask for the opposite: the right to be different, which in my very limited understanding is what Apartheid (literally apartness) stood for.

The other headline was riots after an eviction of an informal settlement in Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha is the biggest and best known township in Cape Town. Townships come in different forms, from officially allowed buildings, built of stone and with connections to electricity, water and sanitation, to shacks, built on government or privately owned land without consent. These last are regularly evicted by the police and the so called “red ants”. Here in Cape Town this is done by the DA, who has the majority and the ANC opposes it, while in other parts of the country they do exactly the same.

Here to the EFF plays a role as they stand with the squatters in saying that they have right to build houses there because there isn’t any space any more in the legal parts of Khayelitsha. Police used stun grenades and rubber bullets, the residents who only started building a few days ago and who’s unfinished buildings got torn down, threw stones at police and vehicles on the nearby highway and looted.

This is unfortunately nothing new, these confrontations between government/police who want to enforce law and discourage and remove illegal settlements and people living in shacks and trying to find a place for themselves are a recurring news item. From mu Western/European perspective it is the most visible result of the huge economic divide between almost European wealth of a (mostly, but definitely not only white) minority and the African economic conditions of a black (not just South) African majority.

What both stories show to me are the difficulties of a country where there are so many divides, in race, in culture (where Afrikaners and whites of English decent over a century after the last Anglo)Boer war still seem divided in some ways) and economic terms. Can the Rainbow Nation that Mandela put forward really work? Last year, when Madiba as South Africans lovingly call him died, radical voices pointed out that he sold out his militant ideals when he became president and made deals which opened the way for neo-liberalism.

Can all the different cultures which make up South Africa live gracefully apart? Or is that just a lighter version of apartheid and imperialism? What is the future of South Africa? Can large conflicts be avoided in a country where there is such a huge divide between a rich minority and a poor majority? Is there really a Rainbow Nation? And if not, what is the alternative? South Africa has a lot of questions,