It is simplistic and denialist to consider post-apartheid South Africa without bringing into sharp view the place of Cape Town in the broader struggle for justice, writes YUNUS OMAR.
THE recent fire at the Parliament complex in Cape Town allows us to think through the centrality of Cape Town in the history of South Africa. The fire has ignited several debates that centre around the location of Parliament in Cape Town. More than that, the fire has rekindled a public discussion around Cape Town and its place in post-apartheid South Africa.
Cape Town holds the dubious distinction of being the centre of colonial rule and colonial domination of the indigenous inhabitants of South Africa by, first, Dutch colonialists and then by British colonialists. In that sense, the history of Cape Town cannot be separated from the broader history of South Africa, and it is simplistic and denialist to consider post-apartheid South Africa without bringing into sharp view the place of Cape Town in the broader struggle for justice. It is noted here that political struggles have been waged by indigenous peoples from the moment colonialists set foot on our shores.
While the fire in the parliamentary complex in Cape Town has seen parliamentarians piggyback on this tragedy by revisiting an old call by some to relocate Parliament to Pretoria (now Tshwane), the more insidious issue we have to confront is the linking of this idea with calls for Cape Town and the Western Cape province to declare itself independent from the South African nation.
It has been frightening to witness the strident nature of ‘independence-from South-Africa’ parties, and the language that has accompanied these calls. The recent local government elections saw smaller parties unashamedly woo voters to their cause by calling out the (very real) failures of the post-apartheid state but then using this to call for the Western Cape to declare itself independent from the rest of South Africa and its people.
Calls by politicians, even as they watched the buildings of Parliament burn in Cape Town on January 2, 2022, cannot be seen in isolation, and dare not be allowed to go unopposed in the days and months ahead. What is at stake here is nothing less than the future of this nation, which we are struggling to define but which we all realise must be taken seriously if we are to construct the post-colonial and post-apartheid society that millions of people suffered under, and from whose devastating effects millions continue to suffer from.
The location of Parliament in Cape Town allows the country to bring its elected officials to the heart of South Africa’s colonial origins. It is absolutely crucial that we do not miss the opportunity to call for Parliament to be rebuilt in Cape Town and for the people of Cape Town to realise that, regardless of their own prejudices, they are the products of a unified struggle against oppression that took anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and non-racial and anti-racial forms.
One of the roles of our elected officials is to consider very carefully how they imagine the New South Africa and who they include and who they do not. It is nonsensical to call for Parliament to be moved from Cape Town, and then to call for unity across the South African nation. The financial cost of having Parliament in Cape Town is far outweighed by the symbolic status and the symbolic worth of having Cape Town included in the broader South African political and economic fabric by having Parliament in the original colonial city and amongst its people.
The politicians calling for Cape Town to lose Parliament are short sighted. Part of the broader struggle in South Africa, which many of the same politicians who call for Parliament to be moved from Cape Town recognise, is the necessity for a complete overhaul of the manner in which our economy is thought about and brought into operation. It also means that elected officials need to realise that they have bought into a neoliberal idea of what constitutes costs. Neoliberalism has at its root the idea that everything, including the human body, can be calculated in terms of money.
It is crucial that we understand that not everything of worth should be calculated in terms of its monetary worth. As a simple example, are we able to put a price on the air we breathe in order to remain alive? Are we able to put a price on the value of sunlight for human health?
There are many on the planet who would wish to have us believe that this is good thinking. They would love to have us look at our children and think to ourselves that Child One is more loved because she/he/they will be able to secure a good job and earn lots of money whereas Child Two does not have the financial prospects that Child One has. Our families have been devastated by our blind acceptance of a philosophy of life that measures the worth of a child to a family by the potential earnings that a child can bring into the household.
What our politicians need to think through really carefully is what and who they consider to be ‘worthy’, and how they think about what is valuable and not. Calls to remove the seat of Parliament from Cape Town will provide racists with credible arguments, as they will point to voices who are from the loins of the oppressed but who unwittingly will be assisting the racist and privileged agenda of those who wish to keep privilege to themselves, and to keep the poor, toiling masses outside of their borders.
We dare not become like the Europe of 2022 that erects barbed wire fences to keep African compatriots out of Europe, as our compatriots flee war, drought, famine and the economic hardships brought on by brutal policies inserted into our thinking by the very countries that smashed Africa, and took its finest peoples into slavery across the Atlantic.
We should do everything in our power to keep all the peoples of South Africa within the embrace of the dream of the new, prosperous, safe and inclusive country we dreamed about before 1990. Keeping Parliament in Cape Town is a small financial sacrifice in the longer term as we strive to unite all South Africans on the basis of justice for all.
- Yunus Omar (PhD) lectures in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.