Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The Rhodes statue, erasing the past and importance of memory

The Czech writer Milan Kundera begins his unforgettable novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Perennial Classics, 1999), with the following words:

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fate­ful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The propaganda section made hundreds of thou­sands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

“Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head … the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

This passage is as relevant to the history of power struggles in this country — South Africa — as it was in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), where Kundera comes from. What is at stake in the current hue and cry about removing the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the UCT campus, and changing the name of Rhodes University, is precisely what Kundera here depicts as strategies of erasing someone — or rather, what is represented by someone — from history, for the sake of asserting a new constellation of power. In the process those advancing the cause of removing these unwanted symbols of the dominant powers of yesteryear — in this case Cecil Rhodes, who symbolises the imperial power of Britain during the 19th century — are in the process of erasing memory in the name of the ascendant power in South Africa today (I’m not sure what to call it — Africa nationalism?).

Apart from the relevance of Kundera’s reflections on the significance of erasing pictures of people, or their statues, from history, a remark by Michel Foucault, in his inaugural lecture — The Order of Discourse (sometimes translated as The Discourse on Language) — is equally applicable here. Foucault observed that when there is a struggle for power, the first thing to be seized is “discourse”, that is, language used in the service of (ideological) power. This is what we are witnessing here — the discourse aspiring to power is evident in everything that the protesters fighting for Rhodes’ demise (at least of his name and of his statue) is saying and writing to justify their desires and actions. The statue itself as a three-dimensional image also has a discursive function, of course, insofar as it “distributes the sensible” (Jacques Rancière) of the imperial historical past in a manner that clashes violently with the cratological aspirations of the protesters.

Further on in Kundera’s novel (p.79) there is a conversation in which a historian, Milan Hubl, comments on what the “President of Forgetting” (as Kundera calls him), Gustav Husak, has done to erase traces of memory from the collective consciousness of the Czech people:

” ‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hubl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.’ ”

I know that readers might respond by asking who “the people” in the case of the Rhodes issue might be — does the term “people” here denote all the people living in South Africa at present, or does it refer to “the people” who comprised the nation — (or a part of it) sometime in the past? The answer, of course, is that I am talking about the people who are citizens of the country at present. And my own belief is that, to erase ANY part of the chequered history of this (or any other) country, is to do the people of the present and of the future a disservice, because it would rob citizens of valuable knowledge of an episode of its past.

What? “Valuable” knowledge of a part of its past? Yes, because even a negative, painful, and deservedly censured and condemned episode of South Africa’s (and the rest of the continent’s) past, including that in which Cecil John Rhodes played a part, and including the history of apartheid, MUST be remembered so that the memory of the excesses and ravages of imperialism and of racist oligarchic rule NEVER be repeated.

Here, too, I anticipate howls of derision, challenging me on the question, whether preserving the name of Cecil Rhodes in an institution, or in a statue, is not obviously a sign of approval or even glorification of what he stood for. I don’t believe it is necessarily the case. As a person, Rhodes, like any other person who left his or her footprint in history, was a multi-facetted man, who cannot be reduced to only one thing, namely someone who, as representative of a once-powerful empire, stands solely for the exploitation of the erstwhile subjugated races of Africa.

He also contributed and, through the stipulations of his Will as actualised in the Rhodes Trust still contributes to the education of many South Africans and individuals from other countries in the world. I am talking about the well-known Rhodes Scholarships (to which can be added the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarships) which are awarded annually to successful applicants, selected solely on merit (as I know from experience; I served on the selection committee for Rhodes Scholarships of the Eastern Cape region for five years) for study at Oxford University in Britain. Here is a relevant excerpt from Politicsweb:

“Hundreds of South Africans compete each year for the Rhodes Scholarships, valued at about R300,000 per year. The Rhodes Scholarships were created by the Will of Cecil John Rhodes and awarded for the first time in 1902. Each year, about 90 Rhodes Scholars are selected worldwide from countries including South Africa, the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, Zambia, India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand.

“In South Africa, the Scholarships are awarded to graduates from any South African province and, per Rhodes’ Will, to alumni of four high schools — Diocesan College, Rondebosch; South African College School, Newlands; Paul Roos Gymnasium, Stellenbosch; and St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.”

The Rhodes Scholarship are awarded to people of all races, as anyone can verify, and many world leaders are among its recipients (including Bill Clinton). The point I am making is simply that, to change the name of Rhodes University and to tear down Rhodes’ statue in Cape Town will erase from collective memory a name that stands for many things, not all of them bad. If these are retained instead, anyone will still be able to question Rhodes’ significance for South African history, and come to an INFORMED decision about its importance. One should not practice the “politics of forgetting”; by doing so, one would be doing the same thing that Husak did in Czechoslovakia.

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