South Africa is not usually an international trendsetter but in one area the country has recently been a world leader, with the United States belatedly following its example. That is in dealing with historical symbols of racism.
Nearly 150 years since American slavery was abolished by the Civil War, the US is only now getting rid of the symbol of that era: the flag of the Confederacy of southern states which fought to preserve slavery.
“That flag is hurtful for so many people of color. If you’re not a person of color you might not understand that.”
– Jerri Haslem, 51, who remembers a childhood racial slur from a boy wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag
It was the murders of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina last month that finally signaled the flag’s demise. The young white man arrested for the racist murders had posted photos of himself with a Confederate flag on a white supremacist website. A newly coined phrase, “racial wallpaper”, seems an apt description of highways named for Confederate generals.
“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.”
– US comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show
In contrast to the US, barely 21 years since the end of apartheid South Africa is “on it” in terms of getting rid of symbols of white minority rule. The changing of colonial and apartheid era names of cities, towns and streets to names of black and white historical figures who fought against apartheid was a recommendation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s. More recent demands for the removal of statues of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes – for whom the white minority-ruled Rhodesia was named – have launched a process of re-situating statues, monuments and plaques honoring leaders of the old South Africa.
It was shocking and depressing to see photos of old South African and Rhodesian regalia worn by the man charged with murdering the nine African-Americans. And what did he call his website? The Last Rhodesian. I’m glad South Africa’s campaign against objectionable historical symbols started before the current controversy over the Confederate flag, without reference to issues of race and history outside southern Africa.
Criticism of South Africa’s name changing may well be warranted. The process could have been more consultative. Some names seem more historic than others. And how come the name Verwoerdburg is gone while there is still a road in the Pretoria suburb named for the man dubbed “the architect of apartheid“?
“South Africa is a white man’s country and we are not prepared to allow the Natives to be the masters.”
– Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, then Prime Minister from 1958 until his assassination in Parliament in 1966
Now some good news: the name-changing in South Africa seems to have been good for the country’s image.
“As a recent visitor to Durban and many other parts of South Africa, I found Durban to be a fantastic city. As a mixed race woman of color/African descent, I absolutely loved seeing that Durban had chosen to rename its streets to reflect the dominant population.”
– comment by American Camilla Hudson on South African website
The kind of defacing of statues depicted above seems to be catching on in the US following the Confederate flag-lowering.
“The Rhodes Must Fall movement has sparked a similar lobby in the US. An activist who removed a Confederate flag in (Boston), where a statue of Christopher Columbus has also been defaced, has pledged allegiance to #RhodesMustFall. Bree Newsome, 30, climbed up a flag pole at South Carolina’s statehouse and removed a Confederate flag. After her arrest and subsequent release, Newsome said one of the reasons why she removed the flag was that she stood in solidarity with South African students who had toppled the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. After Newsome pulled down the flag, the Columbus statue in Boston was daubed in red paint and marked with the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Statues of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis at the University of Texas, and another Confederate monument in Charleston, were defaced.
Cape Town student Chumani Maxwele, who flung human excrement on to the Rhodes statue there, said: ‘We have been touched and inspired to continue being courageous in the face of injustice.’ Open Stellenbosch said: ‘We stand in solidarity with Newsome and the Black Lives Matter campaign. These struggles against legacies of colonialism have real, lived consequences and are interconnected.’ UCT spokesperson Kylie Hatton said: ‘The university welcomes the dialogue happening both in South Africa and internationally about what symbols are appropriate for public display’.”
– The Mercury, Durban, South Africa
My New Old Self would like to make a bold suggestion. Older people could play a useful role in the acceptance and endorsement of the process of phasing out vestiges of The Old Order, in both South Africa and the US. Instead of old people being the biggest complainers. As old people tend to be, according to younger people who complain about older people always complaining.
What do old people complain about? Change. Any kind, from a detour on a familiar route to rescheduling a regular event. The changing of South African town and street names has caused a lot of complaining in recent years. A disproportionate number of complaints seem to come from older people. Older white people, judging from the names in Letters to the Editor of newspapers. (Young people deal less with print and are more on social media; youth also tend to complain less about change.)
I would like to extend my suggestion to older people from all communities, again both in Africa and America. It would be good to hear more about the people who were not honored in the past, who streets and monuments have been renamed for in recent times. Usually you have to die before something gets named after you, so older residents are among the few still around who may know a bit about these late luminaries. We should get a bit of oral history about the people behind the names that had been left out of our histories – before the older generation is entirely gone.
I’d like to end on a comic note by recalling a prank call played live on South African radio a few years ago. The DJ, known as “Whackhead”, phoned a couple with the surname of Strydom (also the name of the prime minister who preceded Verwoerd and a lot of other Afrikaners). Pretending to be a government official, the DJ claimed that the couple’s surname was a bit too old South African and thus needed to be officially changed. He informed them that Shabalala, a common Zulu name, would be their new surname. Initially Mr and Mrs Strydom were outraged, but eventually when it emerged that the DJ was pranking them, they couldn’t stop laughing. All’s well that ends with a chuckle?
Actually, that Confederate flag over the South Carolina State House went up as defiance against the Civil Rights riots of 1966 0r so. All that stuff does indeed belong in museums.