Kicking over the statues

Andrew Donaldson writes on the iconoclasm now sweeping the West


UNTIL last Sunday evening, I knew nothing of Sir Edward Colston. But now I have had my fill of him and all the trouble he has caused — which, I fear, is set to worsen in the days ahead.

Colston was very much a man of his time. Born in 1636 to a family of Bristol merchants, he spent the first years of his career trading cloth and wine from Portugal, Spain and North Africa. In 1680, he joined the governing board of the Royal African Company, a concern that first dealt in gold but then more profitably in slaves. He left the company in 1692.

By then it had transported an estimated 85 000 African men, women and children to the New World. A further 19 000 did not survive the crossing. After his departure, Colston continued as a private slave trader. He retired in 1708 to enter politics and, from 1710 to 1713, was the Tory MP for Bristol.

He was also a philanthropist and used his wealth to support and endow schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. However, only those organisations that agreed with or supported his religious beliefs and political ideals benefited from his benevolence.

His name is commemorated in several Bristol landmarks, streets, schools and a sticky confectionary known as the “Colston bun”. In 1895, 174 years after his death, Colston’s selective charity was further commemorated with the erection of a statue in the centre of Bristol.

It was this monument that Black Lives Matter demonstrators unceremoniously dumped in the city’s harbour on Sunday. Among those who confessed to “a kind of thrill” at its disappearance over the quayside was the former Tory MP and columnist Matthew Parris. There was, he wrote in The Spectator, “something magnificent about the sight of the Bristol mob throwing into the harbour the statue of a man whose trade was notorious for throwing sick slaves with no monetary value into the sea”.


As far as Parris was concerned, the toppling of the Colston statue was not, as some disgruntled conservatives have claimed, an attempt to “erase history”; it was instead history in the making: “If we’re entitled to feel pride at the achievements and virtues of our forebears, why should we not feel shame at their sins? If there is significance in erecting monuments to those we admire, who can deny the significance of tearing down monuments to those we don’t?” 

Parris was also having no truck with prime minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that “democratic routes” must be followed if people wanted to remove such works from public spaces. Where was the fun in that? 

“How dreary, then, to recommend that instead of letting people show their passion unbidden and unminuted, the statue should instead have been demoted by a deliberative committee of municipal worthies, followed by the sending of a van with council workers in hi-vis jackets, and the despatch of the bronze to some dull and unvisited corner of a museum somewhere. Sir Edward went out not with a whimper but with a bang, and the video of the statue going into the harbour is now already in the modern museum that is the internet. That day has become, itself, history: history made not by an item on the agenda for councillors and bureaucrats, but by the impulse of an angry crowd.”

There is a whole heap of more history now thrillingly in the offing for the iconoclasts, and the list of targeted statues on the protest agenda has grown steadily since Sunday. This is according to reports that police intelligence officers have been monitoring activists’ social media to determine which monuments are threatened. The old lions of empire, you could say, await their mauling with a stony stoicism.

One of them, bafflingly, is the statue in Exeter of Sir Redvers Buller, who was not a slaver at all, but a crap soldier. Perhaps his monument has been singled out as it glorifies British ineptitude. Nicknamed “Reverse Buller”, his career was summed up by one critic as follows: “An admirable captain, an adequate major, a barely satisfactory colonel and a disastrous general.” He was commander in chief of the British forces during the early months of the South African War but, after a number of stinging defeats against the Boers, he was relieved of his command and replaced by Lord Roberts, an altogether more vicious bastard.

The big target, of course, is the statue at Oxford’s Oriel College of Cecil Rhodes, a man rather coyly described in The Times as “a 19th-century businessman and politician in southern Africa”. There are “suggestions”, the newspaper drily noted, that his statue “represented white supremacy”. 

Meanwhile, Nelson Mandela has been roped into defending the statue. Professor Louise Richardson, Oxford vice-chancellor, told The Daily Telegraph that the former president would have disagreed with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. “I think [Mandela] was a man of deep nuance who recognised complex problems for what they were. And I don’t think he sought simplistic solutions to complex problems.” 

In 2003, Mandela symbolically joined forces with the Rhodes Trust with the establishment of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which lists among its objectives the building of “exceptional leadership capacity in Africa”. At its launch in London, Mandela described the foundation as “a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle”, adding, “In this, I am certain, Cecil John Rhodes and I would have made common cause.” This is sell-out talk, of course, and does not bode well for the future of various Mandela statues.

The problem with toppled statues, though, are the plinths they leave behind. Who then occupies them? 

Mandela was once a candidate for the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. So was Princess Diana in a jeep. Wisely, it has become the site for temporary works which, to date, have included a statue of a boy on a rocking horse, a large model ship in a bottle and an enormous blue chicken. In Bristol, there are moves afoot to erect a statue of Dr Paul Stephenson on the Colston plinth. Stephenson led a successful boycott of the city’s buses in 1963 after transport authorities there refused to employ black drivers and conductors.

Back home, I’d welcome statues of murdered Alexandra resident Collins Khosa, victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the slain Marikana miners. These would be monuments to staggering hypocrisy.

Jou ma se pious

Away from statues, the outrage archeologists have uncovered a rich cache in old BBC comedies. The latest target is the popular 1970s  series, Fawlty Towers. The episode in which John Cleese goose-steps in front of German tourists shouting “Don’t mention the war!” has been removed from streaming services, pending a review. The episode also features a near-deaf retired army officer making offensive remarks about West Indian cricketers. Earlier in the week, other channels announced they were ditching the BBC’s Little Britain as its creators, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, had portrayed characters “from different ethnic backgrounds”.

Perhaps it is for the better. Times have changed. But as crude and unsophisticated as such material may be, they are nevertheless valuable primers when it comes to developing a sense of humour. I can’t help feeling that, had bores like Max du Preez and “media activist” Micah Reddy paid more attention to these and other programmes, they wouldn’t be such dull slabs of rectitude with peculiar attitudes concerning freedom of expression. They are poor dinner party guests and we are now powerless to help them.

A rotten fish 

I find I must revisit my position on Schabir Shaik now that he has repaid his debt to society. Sent down for fraud and corruption, Jacob Zuma’s special friend persistently complained of hypertension until March 2009 when, two years and four months into a 15-year prison sentence, he was medically paroled and sent home to die. 

Within days though there came sightings of a figure lurching about KwaZulu-Natal’s better country clubs. At the time it seemed Shabby had been infected by solanum, a virus that first kills and then “reanimates” its host, turning it into a flesh-eating ghoul. Allegations that he tried to devour a Sunday Tribune reporter on a Durban golf course appeared to confirm suspicions.

However, it appears that Shabby did not, in fact, expire and that he wasn’t infected by solanum but rather tetrodotoxin, or TTX, a poison found in pufferfish. Research into the folk traditions of the Caribbean reveals that TTX is a common ingredient in the zombi potions of bokors, or Haitian Vodou practitioners. 

These “deadening” potions, swallowed or applied to a wound, would induce a deep coma. Once “dead”, a person was buried, and the bokor could then perform a dramatic “resurrection”. Delirious with moonflower and jimsonweed, the “corpse” would fall into a trance, mindlessly doing the bidding of others. This was devastatingly effective in discouraging suicide among slaves on sugar plantations. Why kill yourself if you’ll still be worked to death afterwards?

After a trip to Haiti in 1982, Harvard academic Wade Davis reported in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology that, with such a “burial”, suspended animation was typically followed by psychosis. Given the trauma of inhumation, along with bog-standard narco-derangement, this was probably unsurprising. Davis hypothesised that such experiences reinforced cultural beliefs, and bokor victims would reconstruct their identities as zombies. Being “undead”, they knew they had no other role to play in Haitian society. They were known to hang around in graveyards, exhibiting “low or flat affect”.  

Such drooling obeisance may shed light on Thabo Mbeki’s enthusiastic regard for Haiti. It could even explain the slavish devotion with which Essop Pahad, then minister in the presidency, would attempt to silence Mbeki’s critics whenever they dared speak their minds. 

Bafflingly, Davis’s work offers no indication as to why Shabby chose to haunt golf courses and not graveyards. We may never know the answer. “No comment,” he told a reporter recently. “I have no comment at all. I just want to live a quiet and peaceful life.” That may be, but I doubt this is the last we hear of pufferfish.

Lost in translation 

Accused Number One and 25-year-old fiancée Nonkanyiso Conco have parted ways. According to the more gossipy fishwraps, Conco has moved out of the Ballito house the former president had rented for her and their infant son. She is now staying with her mother in the Eastern Cape. 

In keeping with modern custom all images of the man who swept her off her feet at a reed dance in 2013 have been removed from Conco’s Instagram account. “Maybe we were rushing things,” she has written, “and not treasuring what holds value in our lives. What if these are days to reset our lifestyles, and refuel our souls?” This was followed by a few lines in Zulu which, courtesy of the nearest on-line translator, read: “Let’s take this time like a campfire, some foods get stronger and some are soft and you look at what you want to be.”

Only the most heartless among us would suggest that, at 78, the man who would make Conco wife number nine, ten or eleventy-something is running out of time in the Not Rushing Things Department or draw attention to the squalid innuendo in this talk of strong and soft braai naai. In his defence, Mr Love Pants has lately been distracted by his forthcoming court appearances and must obviously pay more attention to lawyers than his personal problems.