Updated 17 April 2015

Is ISIS inspiring the defacing of SA statues?

CyberShrink explores the connection between the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS and the current defacing of historical statues in South Africa.


Maybe I’m the only person sensing a connection between the sudden need in South Africa for daubing and condemning previously ignored statues and the provocative destruction of priceless ancient Middle Eastern monuments by the barbarians of ISIS.

There are some obvious differences, but the similarities are provocative. The vandals of ISIS have been destroying ancient relics of human civilisation in Mesopotamia – and resting, perhaps, between beheadings and burning of innocent civilians, they’re now proudly obliterating the history of their own people, pulverising the evidence of the great achievements of that region.

An ancient culture is being scorned by a group that has no civilised culture of their own. Their only creative act has been creating fear and outrage, and they themselves will leave nothing of value behind.

Read: Humans can smell fear

High-tech terrorism

Where they’ve been imaginative, though, has been in how they have broadened the methods of terrorism by embracing the latest modern technology. The terrorist seeks to create terror: their actions are intended not for their primary effects, but for the terror, fear and disruption they cause in a chosen audience. 

Earlier terrorists lacked direct media access of their own, and had to hope that the media belonging to those they opposed, would spread the news of their deeds. ISIS has, however, mastered the "antisocial" social media, reaching the naïve and vulnerable audiences they target. They prepare irresistible and high quality video material for social media to distribute for them.  

They’ve been notable for the extremes to which they are prepared to go, perhaps having noticed that with an increasingly blasé audience, they need to sharpen their tactics. They learned a major lesson from 9/11: Yes, the appalling deaths of vast numbers of people was a major part of the horror, but the images of the huge buildings collapsing, were unforgettable!

Read: The legacy of Osama bin Laden

And they have cleverly added a new dimension. Modern buildings can be re-built, replacement planes can be bought.  It’s an ugly truth, but even humans be replaced. Learning from the Taliban’s callous destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, they're now destroying priceless, irreplaceable Mesopotamian artefacts, monuments, and historic remains.

The recent American-led wars in the Middle East also caused major destruction and looting of historical artefacts, but that wasn’t as deliberate. It was, in that morally careless phrase, “collateral damage”. Even the Germans, during World War II, valued the historical and artistic artefacts of other countries enough to steal, loot and hide them.

The Rhodes connection

So how does Cecil John Rhodes come into all of this? 

The sudden insistence among some noisy groups with a very limited and distorted historical perspective, to turn on statues and demand that they be removed, hidden or destroyed, has something ISIS-like about it – they’re also intent on destroying history. 

I have mixed feelings about Rhodes, but he is an undeniable part of the story of how we became who we are today. Some of what he created has been useful to all South Africans, and some value has also come from our rejection of what he did. It is therefore hardly eloquent or original to fling poo at the statue. How unbearable can it be to leave  an old statue in place, and shouldn't we rather leave the crapping to the birds, those implacable critics?

Read: Flush mobs

And how can anyone justify the desecration of a memorial to innocent horses who died in the Anglo-Boer War, or a statue of Gandhi?

Many ethnic groups in our country have been historically persecuted. Take for example the descendants of the French Huguenots, whose forefathers were persecuted in France. They wouldn't dream of claiming that the suffering of their forefathers entitles them to special privileges. Likewise, I’m not convinced that new generations of South Africans should be encouraged to claim special privileges because of the suffering of their their grandparents. 

Fashionable outrage

It seems that even if I myself haven’t suffered, I can still claim advantages because of the suffering of my parents, or grandparents, or some ancestors I never even knew. We’re constructing a second-hand market in inherited suffering. Go back enough generations, and we'll all be able to claim restitution for some kind of suffering.

We need to focus less on reparations to the descendants of people who suffered, and concentrate more on people who are suffering in the here and now. It’s not the “previously disadvantaged” who need our help, it’s the "presently disadvantaged" who need our respect and care.

Read: An apology often leads to forgiveness

In South Africa there is currently a massive and culpable failure to provide basic amenities to millions of our people, but, perhaps in an orchestrated attempt behind the scenes to divert the attention from these shortcomings, our attention is drawn to other matters like historical statues.  

Government’s obligation to protect cultural property

Interestingly, South Africa is a signatory to international agreements to protect cultural property in times of war. (One wonders if it means that we’re free to destroy it in times of peace.) Back in 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was published. South Africa signed and ratified it in 2003, so it is binding on us.

Based on earlier international agreements in 1899, 1907and 1935, it states that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world”. Our government is therefore bound to “take all possible steps to protect cultural property”, which includes moveable and immoveable property of cultural importance to any people, including monuments, works of art, and objects of historical interest .

This means that all the statues currently being defaced by misguided kids are included, and should be protected. Obviously, if they’re to be kept safe in times of war, they must also be safeguarded in times of peace, and protected from damage, hostility or vandalism.

Read more:

What makes teenagers run away to join ISIS?

ISIS orders genital mutilation for Iraqi women

A cultured man is a happy man

Image: Ruins of a statue from Shutterstock

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.