Hero or Oppressor?

Standing at the Cecil Rhodes Monument, I had a stunning view of Cape Town, with the morning mist not yet burned off. The slums of Khayelitsha spread out for miles. Here was the evidence that I had read about in scholarly articles and Beverly Naidoo’s book of short stories about the devastation of the forced removals. As I stood in the beauty of this new day, I could see the scars of history, reminding me that this country was still emerging from a painful past. The present is not yet fully revisioned into reality. People still live in segregated areas, although more blacks and colours are becoming middle-class. The rider on the horse looks down on the city seemingly defiantly, almost as a reminder that the other does not belong here.

Marias led us through the history of Cecil John Rhodes, painting a picture of a sickly, yet ambitious, man. I did not know the history and legacy behind the man who left a prestigious scholarship for students. I had also not heard that the name had been changed to Mandela-Rhodes scholarship, once again showcasing the work of reconciliation that Mandela continued long after his release from prison. Rhodes’ greed and ethnocentric attitude is now balanced by Madiba’s generous spirit.

rhodesMarias went on to share his personal story which I found inspiring because it shows that one does not have to claim an identity that is handed down; one has choices. Three great Afrikaner families make up his ancestors. Rather than follow in the oppressive footsteps of his ancestors, Marius wrestled with the fact that “his” people had created apartheid. He discovered that he had to integrate different parts of his identity prior to transforming them. Marius went on to join the African National Conference (ANC) and spend his life educating people about apartheid and the freedom movement. He told a story that deeply resonated with me about coming home after a march after Chris Hani’s assassination and being confronted by a right-winged man who lived at the same dorm who began to lecture him about the dangers of black people and how he was a traitor for going to the march. His response of rage was familiar to me. He had hit the wall as an ally and I could relate to this in the work that I do in the Deaf community. We talked about it later, particularly the tension between the anger of the oppression witnessed and the sadness at reality. I think there comes a time when allies cannot be passive but must move to a place of hatred of their own kind who oppress the Other. This was valuable to hear in my own personal journey. In owning my identity regarding issues of race, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and the like, I can come to terms with the Other.

The message that I am taking away from Day Three of this trip is that one person’s hero can be another’s oppressor.




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