By Qhakaza Mthebu
The image of the benign Madiba in a colourful shirt seems more appealing than the reality of the commander of the armed struggle. South Africa’s youth cannot be blamed for thinking the words “Biko” and “Ché” are unique fashion labels featuring cool but unanimous faces. Nelson Mandela Square could just be a meeting point for mall rats out for a good night.
In a study done by SL magazine, participants dressed in shirts with the face of Steve Biko were asked if they recognised the man printed on their shirts. Some knew that the face was Biko’s, but very few of them recognised the same figure as the man who founded the Black Consciousness Movement.
The “revolotuion” has truly expired in a world that has minors in South American sweat shops working to print Ché Guevara’s face onto the shirts and caps that soon fill the trendiest shops I agree that his legacy may live on in people’s closets, but the “closet revolution” is a distant cry from Guevara’s original ideology.
We wear these historical figures across our chests and governments spend millions renaming shopping malls, streets, airports and even informal settlements after them. It is reasonable to suggest that it would be more aligned to what struggle heroes stood for to use these funds to build schools and hospitals in their honour, instead of having a 6m tall statue watching over shoppers in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
When Oliver Thambo returned from a 30-year exile, he went back to live in the township of Wattville and spent the rest of his life trying to improve the lives of the township’s community. It is peculiar that after his death, an airport was named in his honour. Not very many people in Wattville fly out to Cape Town and are back in Johannesburg to do lunch.
The practice of turning key figures in the fight against oppressive regimes into sellable icons is precarious and the public’s response to such initiatives is not always positive. If South African society is becoming less politicised, then Trevor Moke, a first year student’s statement that, “It [JHB International Airport] was an apolitical name that offended no-one, what was wrong with that?” is of some significance. It also claims the failure of projects to venerate liberation fighters.
The creation of monuments and the use of the politically active figures is an attempt to make those figures memorable. When this is done without sensitivity to what these figures believed, the practice ceases to be useful. It creates the illusion that it’s okay to have Ché Guevara on a Coca-Cola advertisement. It ignores the fact that having Steven Bantu Biko across your chest doesn’t mean you know how he died, against a concrete prison floor.