So, the University of Cape Town’s Council has voted to remove the Rhodes statue. This much was expected although it’s unclear at this stage if it will simply be shuffled off to another part of campus, or to a museum, or destroyed. Similarly, attacks have recently been made on other Colonial- and Apartheid-era monuments in various of our cities – Paul Kruger and Jan van Riebeeck in particular.
Thus far, it’s been a fast and furious row, with some unpredictable outcomes. I ran the Two Oceans Half Marathon last Saturday morning and was intrigued to see that the race organisers had pre-empted UCT by erasing Rhodes’ statue from my finisher’s medal. Equally, teams of runners were lining up to have their memento pictures taken in front of the unfortunate object. Like the rest of us, they know that it won’t be there when Two Oceans rolls around next year.
But one thing is certain: the removal of Rhodes’ statue and other objects associated with both the British Empire and rule by the National Party will not have any impact on South Africa’s culture and way of life. None whatsoever.
That’s a pity for the protesters, demanding “economic freedom” or that “whites give a damn” or any of the other slogans that are being bandied about so freely. They’ve wasted their time.
My evidence to back this involves a date or two and the end of an empire far older than Britain’s. In roughly 410 AD, historians believe that the last Romans living in Britain were abandoned by their version of the Mother City. It is thought that they had appealed to Rome for assistance to fight off various Picts, Scots and other noxious barbarians and received a reply back informing them that they should “look to their own defences”. We don’t have a copy of the appeal, if such a thing indeed ever happened, and the reply itself, known as the “Rescript of Honorius” only surfaced a century or so later as a reference in another document, so the exact details are all quite iffy.
But we do have solid archaeological evidence to back the assertion that the end of Roman rule in Britain occurred more or less at this time. It started in 43 AD, so a span of 367 years and it must surely be a coincidence that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape 363 years ago this week.
The way the story is told – or at least the way it was when I was at school in Britain about 50 years ago – was that as the legions marched out, Britain immediately descended into the Dark Ages. Chaos, tyranny, pillage, rapine, plague became the norm. In this mire the country languished for about a thousand years until someone like Chaucer or Shakespeare or Henry VII or Henry VIII – you can pretty much insert here the name of your favourite historical figure – arrived to drag it into the shining light of the Renaissance and shortly thereafter, the Modern World.
In much the same way, the statue protesters probably see a heroic Julius Malema arriving to drag South Africa out of the post-Apartheid mud.
Well, it didn’t happen like that at the end of Roman Britain and it’s certain that it won’t happen like that here, either.
After nearly 400 years of Roman occupation – some might prefer the word ‘civilisation’ – Britain had absorbed great chunks of Rome into its genetic material. Writing in British Archaeology, the distinguished Oxford scholar, Dr. Martin Henig, explains that “the primary, defining features of Roman culture were…the Latin language coupled with Christianity.” Henig notes that this was a bilingual society (Celtic, alongside Latin) and had been for many years, with Latin, “the language kept for best.”
Henig’s article – he’s an expert on Roman art and culture – lists many of the different ways in which these two dominant themes, language and Christianity, remained firmly embedded in Britain until the 9th Century King Alfred. And from Alfred, there’s a clear line through the Middle Ages and directly to present day Britain.
In exactly the same way, even if by some latter day magic, a giant space ship were to appear over South Africa and vacuum up every last person descended from Settler or Boer stock, the Colonial past would still be here, embedded even in the Malema genes. Whoever was left would still speak English, if only on “high occasions” and tens of thousands of South Africans would still follow Christianity. (I use this religion only as an example because it fits the Roman-Britain parallel – I have no doubt that other “imported” religions, if I may call them that – like Islam – would live just as vigorously. They, too, are now a part of South Africa’s national DNA.)
So by all means knock down a few statues. It won’t make a scrap of difference: the likes of Rhodes and Queen Victoria, Kruger and van Riebeeck will still be present long after the bricks and mortar have faded.
Just like the Romans in Britain.