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MELTING STONES - Michelle LeBaron

MELTING STONES - Michelle LeBaron

Contemporary South Africa is a place few predicted: amidst the legacy of a relatively peaceful transition from Apartheid; amidst the promise of a rainbow nation under the leadership of Nelson Mandela who was wise enough to recognize that race relations could not change overnight—the specters of the old regime remain alive and well. True, the statue of Cecil Rhodes was famously toppled at the University of Cape Town, and student protests demanding free fees garnered national attention and disrupted academic calendars. But the protesters have so-far failed to achieve the results they sought. Today, many South Africans live in appalling conditions and cannot find routes out of informal settlements, never mind into higher education. And the people living in such situations are overwhelmingly black and people who were designated by the apartheid regime as “coloured” South Africans.

I’m currently spending several months living in Stellenbosch, the heartland of the Afrikaans language and Apartheid philosophy. Next door to this well-heeled community with its intricate Cape Dutch architecture and sumptuous winelands is Khayamundi, a sprawling informal settlement. The difference in primary education, services, and infrastructure between the two contiguous communities is unmistakably stark. From leafy lace-lined verandas to shacks of corrugated iron, the boundaries belie abundance juxtaposed with struggle. 

In the South Africa of today, the challenge is identifying the enemy. 

I believe the enemy is stone. 

And I believe that, until the statues melt along with hearts and truthful conversations are had about race and poverty and justice and land, conflict here will continue to solidify, and those stones will continue to be thrown at those who refuse to listen.  

Many suggest that corrupt and unskilled government is a centerpiece of South African problems. Recent elections in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and other centers have been touted as bellwethers of a change trend from unwavering loyalty to the African National Congress, Mandela’s party. It is also true that, though South African education spending is higher per capita than neighboring Zimbabwe, for example, its schools are far less successful in terms of literacy and other achievement measures. Students toppling statutes, then, are right to ask what happened to the rainbow nation dream in which race would no longer bar participation and progress. 

But who are the students and what they are toppling? A South African author friend of mine happened upon the day that Mr. Rhodes was removed from his high plinth at the University of Cape Town and carted off on the bed of a truck. Traffic was snarled, so my friend got out to see what was happening. There, he saw a crowd of young people wearing Nike sneakers, taking selfies with iPhones first of the statue’s fall, then of the crowd, and finally of themselves with the event in the background. Black students surged around the sculpture chanting angrily and performed the surgery necessary to loose it from its perch. White students, he reported, shifted from one foot to the other around the edge of the group as if unsure of their roles. 

The disappearance of Cecil Rhodes from the University happened in the midst of a rash of fallen and defaced statues in South Africa. Bronze likenesses of Paul Kruger, from whom the wildlife park takes its name, were drenched in red paint from shoulder to toe including his jaunty top hat, and on another of his perches, the paint was green. Memorials to the Boer War were set alight and riders knocked off their bronze steeds.  But not all of the attacks on defenseless statues were aimed at effigies of white European colonizers. Gandhi’s statue in Johannesburg was attacked with white paint, and a bronze Nelson Mandela, arms outstretched over Pretoria, was covered with black trash bags as his base was spray-painted with slogans. The commemorative statue in the Eastern Cape to Oliver Tambo—a founding African National Congress member—was burned.

When it came to light that the sculptors of the Pretoria Mandela had placed a small bronze rabbit in the statue’s ear as their signature, many loud voices demanded its removal. The government who commissioned it ordered the sculptors to remove the rabbit to “restore the statute back to dignity,” apparently affronted both by the unauthorized placement of the rabbit and the perceived affront. It was accordingly removed, and government representatives did not reply to an offer by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to adopt the rabbit. (Yes, this really happened!)  

It is trite to say that attacking statues that—after all—cannot defend themselves, is a symbolic act. Rhodes was not the target in Cape Town, but his colonial life and the values he represents. Gandhi harbored intense racism toward black Africans even as he marched to free Indians from colonial oppression in South Africa. Scholars Ashwan Desai and Goolam Vahed have recently written that he called black Africans “savage,” “raw,” and “living a life of indolence and nakedness.” Indeed, Gandhi campaigned to convince British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was superior to the black African one and complained at the insult of being classified as black when he was arrested. It does not diminish his achievement or courage to acknowledge the flaws in his thought and actions. Similarly, Mandela and Tambo are seen by some not as liberators, but as sell-outs. Given that these men are dead, defacing their statues cannot be an attack on them personally, but on their status as heroes, on the stories that are told about them and how these stories place people in banal, recycling hierarchies of disadvantage. This helps to explain why a rabbit could not remain in Mandela’s ear: cementing larger-than-life effigies on high platforms is to place them above the profane world, to solidify and even sanctify their legacies. It is to preserve a unitary account of who they were, one that does not brook deviation and certainly cannot accommodate mascot rabbits. 

But legacies are always contested and narratives can be told multiple ways from strikingly different standpoints. If all those memorialized in the defaced statues are enemies enough to galvanize repeated vandalism, what do we learn about the nature of enmity? Perhaps that enmity does not dissipate over time, but is often amplified by the gaps between dreams, ideals, and lived experiences that look too much like the past that revolutionaries and politicians promised to change. When this happens, the idols of the past become catalysts for violent mobilization in the present. In such times, on what can we rely? The South African constitution, according to recent comments by Justice Albie Sachs, was drafted the way it was to keep everyone accountable: “[w]e have constitutions because we mistrust not only the enemy, but also ourselves.” Accountability is easier when, through dynamic institutions and community engagement in relation to policy, we learn how to keep ourselves from lapsing into unconscious hubris. 

Casting anyone in stone and hoisting them above ordinary mortals is an act of hubris. It is hubris because even the most visionary of us are more complex than a single story. As the Hebrew Bible figure Daniel foretold the coming division of Babylon interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue with feet of clay, so even those who achieve great things can and should be remembered in ways that reveal the complexities, vulnerabilities, discontinuities, and contradictions of their lives.

The problem with grand statues, then, is their scale and their fixity. Times change, and perspectives on the past change with them. Though the stories I have related here are about anger and frustration, they illustrate the power of figurative memorials to elicit strong feelings. Those feelings can range from admiration and devotion to betrayal and rage. I remember the first time I stood next to the imposing seated Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall in Washington, DC and read the text of the Gettysburg address carved into the marble. I felt inspired and awed by the words, but I did not develop a clearer felt sense for the man. That Lincoln is too big and too white; he is nowhere near the viewers’ level. He is elevated toward heaven, almost a deity. And for many, I suppose he is.

But Lincoln and Gandhi and Mandela were never gods. They were men. As I reflect on the statue paint-splashing and toppling going on here in South Africa, I wonder whether we humans should check our hubris in relation to how we remember even the most beloved of our ancestors. Is it best that they be captured in permanent installations and placed on high in frozen poses? Or would we find it easier to blur the distinction between friend and enemy, hero and antihero if memorials were human scale and less representational? One of the world’s (and America’s) most powerful sites—the Vietnam War Memorial—abides nestled into an earth berm, silently reciting thousands of names of women and men on reflective black marble. 

I am relieved that memorial practices have, for the most part, moved beyond grand equestrian statues and marble captures of great men (and very few women). For me, the most powerful places of remembering are those of underwhelming scale: a patch of prairie with fragments of art left by Japanese internees during the Second World War, a hidden garden on the grounds of an Irish monastery with a moss-softened stone carving of a mother and child with rounded edges, the mound of heart-shaped rocks small enough to be carried in my lover’s backpack collected on my favorite Swiss Alps hikes, now resident in my back garden. 

As I write of these places, my heart softens as it never does when I gaze up at triumphant metal or stone figures. These places bring to mind the importance of community members remembering heroes and heroines together, and jointly deciding whose lives are memorialized, how, and why. I wonder what sorts of memorials would be designed and constructed if the places we live and those we want to remember were invited—even in imagination—to dialogue with us in their own vibrant alphabets, nuanced and imperfect, but original; if we stopped assigning them the roles of hero or antihero, and found more dynamic and complex ways to remember them. 

This weekend, I will attend a performance with life-sized elephant puppets made by members of the world-famous Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town. What I had been anticipating as a wonderful celebration of African culture and artistry focused on elephant conservation has instead turned into a memorial: Ncedile Daka, one of the puppet creators and puppeteers, was murdered last weekend in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement that sprawls for miles outside of Cape Town. At first, his devastated colleagues at Handspring thought they would not be able to perform without Ncedile. But they found a way to improvise, and so the elephants will dance amongst us life-size on the lawn in the summer dusk. Here is what Handspring director Aja Marneweck said in tribute to their fallen friend, speaking of his artistry in working with one of the elephant puppets on last year’s National Day of Reconciliation:

“In the death of [the elephant] Mnumzane scene, Nced performed the young [elephant] Mandla. He was the head and trunk, the main vehicles for touch and empathy. Every time he would bring me to tears because I saw such compassion in Mandla’s eyes, I swear I even saw tears. And I told Nced how much he moved me and that only the greatest puppeteers hold the secrets of how to transfer such love through themselves to the puppet, let alone a large elephant. His ability astounded me.”

Nced is a South African hero whose creative genius touched many. Remembering him, and the precarity with which he lived, is important in charting the future here. If all memories are personal, then all memorials should be personal, too. Let the stones all melt, let larger than life representations be reserved for the creatures that really are that big. For us mortals, let us find human-scale ways to remember those things that cannot be erased by grand impositions on national psyches. The way Nced lived his life makes me want to create, to leave my office this minute and make a dance or write an elegy to beauty, the beauty of the places where we are not friend or enemy, right or wrong, but determinedly alive in our complicated homes— one with another—in all of our contradictions.

Read more from Michelle LeBaron and the Porch community, in the full issues of our magazine, available to subscribers here.

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