Northern Ireland’s Union flag protests find an echo in South Africa

Paul Nolan, author of the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Reports and the lead researcher on the QUB report on the flag protest, recently returned from Cape Town where he found familiar tensions in the South African peace process.

ON MARCH 9, Chumani Maxwele, a student at the University of Cape Town, collected faeces from the portable flush toilets near his home, and when his bucket was sufficiently full he carried it to the front of the university and poured it over the statue of Cecil Rhodes that had dominated the entrance to the campus since 1934.

His actions began the 'poo protest' in South Africa which, like the flag protest in Northern Ireland, has exposed the fact that the peace and reconciliation process is hard to translate from the page into everyday reality.

And, like the lowering of the flag at Belfast City Hall, Maxwele’s symbolic act set in train a movement that achieved instant acceleration, and has raised serious questions about the extent of the reconciliation that has been achieved since the first full franchise elections in 1994.

It is easy to see why Rhodes might be a target. More than any other single individual he embodied white imperialism in Africa.

Indeed the long-distance gaze of the statue could be interpreted as Rhodes staring off in the direction of his stated ambition to create a track of empire ‘from the Cape to Cairo’.
This is the man who stated that “I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

The racial superiority which Rhodes claimed for the white population carried with it as its natural corollary the subjection and violent suppression of the black population – no surprise then that the black students of UCT might not see his statue in the same affectionate way that, say, the students of Harvard view the statue of the English clergyman John Harvard in Harvard Yard.

There are complications however – not least that South Africa has not decided how to deal with the heritage of white rule.

The most common practice to date has not involved the removal of the traces of that history but to expand upon it with recognition being given to the lives, work and achievement of the ‘rainbow nation’ - black South Africans such as the musician Brenda Fassie, the human rights activist Cissie Gool and the Afrikaner poet Ingrid Junker.

If one was to seek parallels between Cape Town and Belfast this was the same dispensation as evolved at Belfast City Hall, where the Council decided that it would not remove the statues of Queen Victoria, Edward Harland and all the other symbols of unionism and the Empire, but would rather seek to expand the ‘symbolic landscape’ by including more expressions of nationalist cultural identity.

South Africa has gone further by preserving, in museum form, some of the most hated symbols of the apartheid area: most notably, Robben Island which has become Cape Town’s number one tourist attraction, and other symbols of the traumatic past like the Old Fort prison.

Here, the proposal to create a reconciliation centre at the Maze/Long Kesh site was jettisoned by the DUP precisely because it seemed that might emulate the model of the Robben Island centre.

There, the breadth of agreement about the sainted status of Mandela and his ANC fellow prisoners has made the commemoration of his prison period entirely unproblematic.
The generosity of spirit which ushered in the new South Africa allowed for gestural politics of the most striking sort. Indeed when in 2002 Mandela linked his name to that of Cecil Rhodes in the creation of the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarships for emerging African leaders, it seemed like the liberal embrace had allowed for the end of all the old enmities and for the circle of history to be closed.

Maxwele’s bucket of excrement changed all that. The uproar which has followed his scandalous gesture has exposed a raw anger within the student body.
The issues are to do with the fact that the ‘transformation process’ has not delivered what was promised.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign which is spearheading the protest, claims that only 14% of professors are black (and there are no female black professors), and that the curriculum remains Euro-centric.

Driven by a radicalism that has not been seen since the 1994 elections, the students have marched and occupied university buildings, and in response the University authorities have retreated step by step – first by boxing up the statue, then finally acceding to the pressure and agreeing its removal to from the campus.
That has not served to stall the momentum of the protest. Rather, it has taken off like a bush fire and spread to other cities.

A burning tyre was placed around the neck of a monument to British soldiers who had died in the Boer Wars.

The radical group behind that is the Economic Freedom Fighters, a political party formed in 2013 by Julius Malema, formerly the firebrand youth leader of the ruling African National Congress, which expelled him after a conviction for hate speech.
Shortly after the attack on the monument, a statue of Queen Victoria in Port Elizabeth - virtually identical to the one outside Belfast City Hall - had paint poured over it.

Malema denied that the Economic Freedom Fighters had been responsible, saying that if they had been involved the statue would have been demolished. He did however commend the action and called for the extension of the protests.

The response from the white population has been divided. At first the Afrikan community took a wry satisfaction at seeing the English Rhodes, the man who helped trigger the Second Boer War, come under attack.

The volatility of the situation however is seen as threatening. The letters columns of the paper carry indignant, angry and despairing responses to the emergence of a new black consciousness movement.

It is pointed out that the UCT owes its existence to a fund bequeathed by Cecil Rhodes (rejoinder: his wealth was no more than plunder) and that if you start pulling this thread the whole jumper could unravel.

The Rhodes University at Grahamstown is the obvious next target, as indeed is the very name Grahamstown. A Pandora’s box has been opened and it is not clear where it will end. In Zimbabwe there have been renewed calls for Rhodes’ grave to be opened and his bones shipped back to England.

Peace processes require careful management.