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After having accepted the above invitation to attend a seminar held on 30th April organised by Durban’s Libraries and Heritage Department, I should have known better than to arrive punctually for the advertised time of 09h00. Admittedly, that gave me ample opportunity to enjoy the refreshments, which were lavishly provided and enthusiastically attacked, and to listen to a jazz band whose music, I must confess, was not in a style I admire.
The meeting commenced at 10h10.
After National Anthem and introduction formalities, the president of University of KwaZulu Natal’s Student Representative Council, Dithobe Mosane, delivered an emotional and rambling diatribe against ‘symbols of white supremacy’ being kept in public places. In the process he revealed an abysmal lack of knowledge of history as well as a tenuous grasp on reality. He said, for example, that the settlers (local being understood) had taken the land from the black owners by fighting spears with guns. He gave rabble-rousing rhetoric against the fact that Howard College was called that – that this was to commemorate the son of the donor of the land as a condition of donation carried no weight, in his opinion. These were still ‘men who stole land from our grandfathers and killed them’. Little details like grants of land from King Shaka of the Zulus seem to have escaped his attention, as well as the fact that Shaka and Co killed lots of grandfathers using superior spears and strategies.
It was just another reflection of the disgusting urge towards heritage destruction and lack of historical perspective which has been in evidence with the Rhodes statue in Cape Town.
Professor Sabine Marschall of UKZN put forward quite eloquently that xenophobia and symbol destruction historically reflect outpourings of frustration at poverty and service delivery issues – that the ‘stirring’ is happening at more privileged levels made her arguments unconvincing. The CEO of the National Heritage Council, Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa, did counsel (haha) against dismantling the symbols, rightly pointing out that they were part of history, but felt they should be removed to ‘theme parks’.
University of Johannesburg’s Professor Ashwin Desai spoke passionately in favour of keeping the symbols in public spaces. However, both he and the learned advocate lost credibility when rabbiting on with the African buzzword of ‘decolonising’ – which none of them seem to realise is a joke and an impossible dream unless reversion to a wheel-less, mud-hut society is envisaged. Colonialists kick-started (literally in many cases, it must be confessed) the process of local transformation towards the same levels of knowledge and technology already long attained in their countries of origin. All of the progress since would not have occurred without them. So what ‘colonial’ do you remove? It would have to be extremely selective unless their whole lifestyle were to collapse. Small example – the Zulu King in his natty western comic-opera-style military uniform.
My desire to make these and many other points was frustrated due to the fact that the floor was allowed only the tiniest fraction of the time allocated, and some idiots waffled a lot – as always happens in these instances. I also wanted to counter some comparisons of the colonists as ‘Hitlers’ made by certain of the squeakers by pointing out that the xenophobic incitement recently in evidence was exactly the sort of way Hitler-types set about brainwashing the populace and turning them into mindless mobs.
All I was able to put across, however, was that, as a South African with ancestry going back some 300 years, I had a right to feel put out when parts of my heritage were destroyed, and I also mentioned the idiocy of targeting the Dick King statue – although I readily admitted that Ndonweni as his companion for most of the historic ride should have received at least equal recognition.
That was it. The meeting closed to allow the consumption of an excellent buffet. It does not seem to be the African way to stint on these occasions – but the irony of allowing such overindulgences at ratepayer or taxpayer expense while wailing about the poor does not seem to register.