Cecil John Rhodes couldn’t have imagined, when he was setting up the template for Apartheid and furthering British imperialism in Africa over a century ago, that one day a statue erected in his honour would be smeared by human excrement. Especially by a young black man.
Then, after all, Rhodes was the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and virtually overlord of what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe. He was a subject of the British Empire, “on which the sun never set,” and as he arrogantly wrote in a letter to his friend, W. T. Stead: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”
A century, however, is a long time. The sun has long set on the empire. The “first race” nonsense Rhodes spoke about has been shown to be a fallacy and the blacks he fought so vigorously to oppress now rule over South Africa.
Rhodes finds himself in the news again as young South Africans question his legacy and deface his statue. Students at the University of Cape Town are demanding that his statue be removed from the University, while those at the eponymously named Rhodes University want the University’s name changed- seeking to cut all links with a man whose racist and imperialist views find less and less space in modern South Africa.
Growing up in Zimbabwe I probably learnt more about Rhodes than any South African child. Rhodes is an important part of Zimbabwean history, prominent in our history books as the leader and financier of the colonialists who claimed these lands for their Queen. His legacy here was more pronounced, for decades the country was named in his honor.
However after independence in 1980 the government wasted no time in dismantling the symbols of colonialism. Salisbury became Harare, Fort Victoria was renamed Masvingo, Gwelo became Gweru, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. In Harare almost all the city’s streets were renamed, many after the fathers of African nationalism: Kwameh Nkrumah, Samora Machel, Robert Mugabe, Sam Nujoma, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and others.
There are plans to rename other institutions and places bearing colonial names, from schools to the Victoria Falls. Rhodes’ grave, suspiciously located in what was the holiest place in the Shona religion, in the Matopos has caused some controversy. Some people have called for its removal (though it has not been defaced yet).
Yet despite our attempts at decolonisation even here there are vestiges of colonialism still. The country’s strategic military base is named after a British monarch, George VI, though there have been attempts to rename it. The Victoria Falls is still the Victoria Falls, probably because the potential financial effects (tourism) were enough to dampen the morale of whoever directs the name changes.
I am certain we will have these conversations again in the aftermath of the #RhodesMustFall protests.
One of my friends told me that he believes the students in South Africa are directing their frustrations with the ANC government at the wrong target. Rhodes, he said, is long dead and an indelible part of African history whose memory, and “good” works – such as the Rhodes scholarship- cannot be removed from the annals of African history.
This friend thinks the young people in South Africa should be focusing on more “important” issues, protesting against corruption, or unemployment for example.
I think this is a simplistic way of looking at protests- and activism in general. We should not only protest against big problems. Besides what exactly is a “big” problem- global warming, the threat of nuclear war, ISIS?
If we were to subscribe to this logic there would be no protests at all because there are always “bigger problems”. Want to protest against police brutality, why bother, that’s petty, why not protest against global warming first? There would be no Mini skirt march, no Occupy movements, no #RhodesSoWhite.
The point here is protests are important because they raise awareness. Awareness leads to dialogue. And dialogue may lead to lasting solutions.
The second point made is that Rhodes did much to “civilize” us, and continues to help Africans through the Rhodes scholarship (now Rhodes-Mandela Scholarship).
This glosses over the man’s ideas on race, and the laws he put in place in the Cape that set the foundation of the apartheid state. Rhodes was a racist and imperialist whose “good” works will never be enough to erase his injustices against black people in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Further, even the worst despots had their good deeds, depending on who you ask. This does not absolve them of their sins.
Rhodes statue, like his ideas, have no place in a modern free South Africa, less so at an institution of higher learning. If anything the statue should be relocated to a museum.
Removing the symbols of colonialism from our countries is not denying our history. That is why Rhodes will always have a place in books and museums.
The discussions started by UCT and Rhodes University students go beyond the statue, beyond renaming Rhodes University. These protests have made us ask important questions about race, equality and the importance of symbols.
Colonialism goes beyond physical domination. It manifests itself in different, subtle, ostensibly innocuous but insidious ways. Mental emancipation is also important. As the great Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.”
Personally I want Rhodes University renamed, the statue relocated. A new, politically neutral, unifying and inclusive name for Rhodes University not only espouses the values and ideals of the rainbow nation, it also stops the continued glorification of a ruthless imperialist.
It will also be a step towards much needed reforms in South Africa’s elite universities, where the numbers of black faculty staff remains worryingly low and black students feel like outsiders.
But whatever happens the young people of South Africa should be applauded for these protests. They have raised awareness on a very important topic.
And this awareness, the consciousness of young black South Africans who dared to ask questions about Rhodes is in itself a victory regardless of the outcome.
Talented African students will continue to go to Oxford because of the money left by Rhodes, his statue may remain at the University of Cape Town, if only for a little while, and Rhodes University may be Rhodes University still, again if only for a little while, but Rhodes, in a way, has already fallen.
It may take hours, days, months or even years but there will be reforms in South Africa’s tertiary institutions. Maxwele Chumani and the scores of protestors have sown the seeds for the reforms.
By this Rhodes’ ideas of segregation and imperialism are defeated.
Thousands of students can attest to this.