“Nearly twenty five years after the fall of apartheid and skin colour has moved to the fore and is more viciously pointed out than ever. No one could have predicted this,” said author Christopher Hope. “There was a conspiracy of silence in the period immediately following 1994. The past was embarrassing so talking about it was not widely encouraged.”
Christopher Hope – STIAS Artist-in-residence – was outlining plans for his current work which has the working title The Café de Move-On Blues* at a STIAS fellows seminar.
“This is a book about a journey,” he said. “A journey that started a couple of years ago when I watched a furious crowd on the campus of the University of Cape Town assaulting the statue of Cecil John Rhodes – several hundred people trying to lynch a statue.”
“The question I asked myself was ‘Why Rhodes, why here and why now?’.”
“The scene reminded me again of the great unconscious dark comedy that is South Africa. Nothing on the surface is to be trusted. You can’t make it up. The challenge is to out-write it.”
“Many of the students were wearing Nike, using their iPads to take photos, driving German cars and talking about heading off afterwards to the Waterfront to drink Italian beer.”
“It was clear Rhodes wasn’t the real target. What lay behind is what caused the anger.”
“Rhodes is sewn into the fabric of this country and has influenced the way people think. Rhodes, and those like him, can’t be easily got rid of because it is ourselves Rhodes reminds us of.”
“The new iconoclasts are fighting shadows,” he continued. “They set out to hunt down enemies but what happens when it is yourself you meet, coming the other way?”
“The event set off a wave of similar attacks. Public statues across South Africa were streaked with paint, daubed with excrement, plastered with insults.”
Hope described how this experience triggered a trip around the country and became the basis for his new work. “These vandalised statues became signposts on a personal map I made to guide me,” he continued. “I visited this diverse group of silent, assaulted figures: a white imperialist, Victorian monarchs, an Asian reformer, Boer presidents, tribal chieftains, Khoi-San heroes, and Black African revolutionaries.”
“The battered statues said something about the state of South Africa but they said it in code. And that was not surprising. This country is a work in progress, resists realism, will not conform, is bored by good sense , dotes on violence, makes itself up as it goes along, and us with it. Better then to treat it as a work of outrageous fiction and try to read through to its essence.”
He also spent time in places where he had lived or where the memories and monuments were much more personal.
“It became a voyage around my own life.”
“The question to myself was – who were the new iconoclasts attacking these icons? And what was their true target? The answer, of course, was white people, or white power, or white colonialism, or white history. Abstractions for which the statues are the next best thing – at least for the moment.”
In this work, Hope aims to look at people like himself, both English and Afrikaans whites, across the country, in an attempt to say who they are (and who they think they are) and how they react to life in the new South Africa.
“I once took the view, in the classic definition offered by Mandela and other traditional ANC leaders, that South African belongs to all who live in it. I think now that this might paint too rosy a picture. Looking at my compatriots right now, the interesting thing is to ask the question – of them, of myself, of history – is their time now up?”
Hope pointed to the lack of awareness of who one is and where one is, as well as the “unconscious arrogance and sense of entitlement” that he believes white South Africans still exhibit.
“Do white people have a future in South Africa – the jury is out on that but I, for one, have my doubts. That’s the real question being posed by the people who attack a Rhodes statue. To ignore their anger would be a considerable error.”
“I’m trying to write a book that explains something of my own country to myself. I’ll probably fail,” he continued. “It’s a book about anger and what one does with anger.”
“On my journey I found monuments that haunt the imagination, or trigger guilt, anger and uncomfortable memories. I also found that human figures tend to shrink in an African landscape, some of the real heroes of South African history are missing and some statues have been stolen and sold for scrap – unfortunately this is what we have done to much of our history.”
“I believe history matters,” he continued, “because if we forget we wander about in a state of unhelpful amnesia.”
“Unfortunately, rhetoric and violence are the two most enduring strands in South African history,” said Hope. “They hang together in the extended symphony that is this country.”
“We paper over things and move into theatrical pretence. It’s very South African – we all know but we don’t say because that would be rude. If in doubt, change the name. As long as nothing actually alters it will be fine.”
“That people are one is a fiction that is rolled out,” he said. “That we are mixed is the best of this place. Unfortunately, the lack of comprehension between white and black is pretty profound. We talk past each other when we talk to each other at all.”
“I found that many of the people I interviewed wouldn’t be identified. They want to keep their private and public worlds separate. This level of caution is worrying.”
But all is not doom and gloom. “There are heroic features to the South African psyche,” said Hope. “And best of them all are disobedience and a sceptical spirit. The attack on the statues was about seeking reasons for why we are where we are. It started a very healthy questioning of what leaders – including Mandela – stood for.”
“If it opens a discussion of who we are and how we came to be here, this is a discussion that’s overdue and very necessary to have.”
* Café de Move-on – refers to illegal, Black-run temporary shops that were set up in White areas under Apartheid but were forced to keep moving to ‘outrun’ the police.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw