Over the past few months, I have been intrigued by media reports of the imminent arrival of something called ‘Day Zero’ in the city of Cape Town. The term refers to the day when water in the city’s reservoirs is projected to fall below 13.5% of capacity, as a result of three successive years of poor rainfall. On this day, the city’s municipal taps will be switched off, forcing its four million inhabitants to line up for a daily water ration of twenty five litres at designated collection points. As rain has fallen, the day has been pushed back, from April to May to June to July, and now to 2019. Global media interest in this story has been suffused with a kind of horrified fascination with Cape Town’s predicament as a harbinger of ‘our’ collective future. While it is possible that the discourse of municipal emergency has engendered a consciousness of the finitude of water and a culture of conservation among Capetonians, there is something vaguely troubling about the register of exceptionalism in which the story has been reported and about the very framing of Day Zero as spectre of an unprecedented apocalyptic future. Even at the height of the crisis, this second whitest of South African cities has enjoyed something that many cities in the global South do not: a round the clock supply of domestic water. For millions of inhabitants of the world’s slums, where a single tap may be shared by thousands of people and where life itself is temporally organised around the vagaries of an erratic municipal water supply, many days are already Day Zero.
Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for.
In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.
This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.
In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.
Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:
Here’s the discussion that followed:
One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:
In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:
…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’, ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).
In June 2016, the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled a statue of Gandhi on the Legon campus of the University of Ghana in Accra. Almost immediately, angry blog posts and articles in the local press denounced the installation of the statue, demanding its removal. On twitter, activists proclaimed #GandhiMustFall and #GandhiForComeDown. An online petition voicing these demands has attracted over 1700 signatures at the time of this writing. The argument of the protesters is simple: Gandhi was a racist. As an activist in South Africa, he worked primarily in the interests of the Indian community, seeking a renegotiation of its position in the existing racial hierarchy of the settler colony without ever attacking the underlying premises of racial ordering. The protesters evidence this claim with Gandhi’s own words drawn from writings across a significant period (1894-1908), in which he refers to black South Africans by what would today be considered the offensive racial slur ‘kaffir’. More than the word, the connotations of which may well have worsened since the time Gandhi employed it, the protesters are angered by the shallowness and rank supremacism of his vision of liberation:
Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness (1896).
The protesters link Gandhi’s remarkably accommodationist views on race with his beliefs about caste, the institution of which he would notoriously justify in later arguments with Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar. Unsurprisingly, the protest against the Gandhi statue draws inspiration from contemporaneous struggles against symbols of colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy all over the world, among which #RhodesMustFall in South Africa is preeminent. The connection is more than incidental: once again, the politics of a settler in turn-of-the-century South Africa has come under scrutiny in a protest against a statue in a distant country.
Even commentators sympathetic to the aims of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) have been at pains to point out that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College is not the most significant element of the campaign’s platform. Amia Srinivasan observes that ‘Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues.’ Amit Chaudhuri laments that ‘it would be…sad if Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford became identified with the statue in Oriel College alone’ because its ambition beyond the removal of the statue, namely that of decolonising education, is more significant. David Olusoga worries that by building their manifestos around calls for the taking down of statues, the more complex and worthy ideas around decolonisation raised by these campaigns have been ‘distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate’. I don’t disagree (much) with these views and indeed, if you want a right-wrong, yes-no answer, this essay will disappoint. But they beg the question of what statues mean and why we keep putting them up if they are so easily relegated to an epiphenomenal register of political discourse.
It’s worth remembering that RMFO itself has never downplayed the significance of the statue in the way that some of those writing in solidarity with it have done. It describes its mission as that of decolonising ‘the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ (emphasis mine) and lists as its first aim the intention to tackle ‘the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history’. In addition, it aims to reform the Eurocentric curricula to which university students continue to be subject and to address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic staff and students at Oxford. One way to think about the place of the statue in this debate is to see it as a means to an end: as Srinivasan rightly notes, ‘complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this.’ But while clarifying that its campaign is indeed ‘about more than a statue’, RMFO nonetheless insists that
statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important. This is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.
Without wanting to suggest that the success of RMFO should be judged by whether the statue falls or endures (it shouldn’t), I want to think with RMFO about what the expressive function of statues entails. Writing in a very different context, Judith Butler has famously worried that the relegation of injustices to the realm of the ‘merely cultural’ effectively downgrades the urgency with which they demand redress. For ‘merely cultural’ read ‘merely symbolic’, and the risk of disappearance of the demand for iconographic decolonisation (exactly what Oriel College might wish for) becomes obvious: if RMFO is about more than ‘just’ a statue and if we all agree that the statue is ‘merely symbolic’, then we might as well get beyond, behind, and beneath the symbol to address its putative ‘real’ while leaving the symbol itself intact. Meanwhile the possibility that the ‘merely symbolic’ has material consequences remains unexplored.