Press "Enter" to skip to content

If Rhodes goes, Jesus Christ must go

Here’s an inconsequential bit of South African literary history. The late poet Professor Stephen Watson used to have me over to his little house on Rouwkoop Road in Rondebosch just across the road from the railway line. This was in the mid-Eighties. With the occasional roar of a passing train in the background we often discussed poems, argued about aesthetics, drank heaps of wine and I learned a lot about writing poems and ways of travelling the world with a backpack from a poet who was then about 31 and I was about 22.

One night, after a particularly serious session with the superb grape of Stellenbosch and swapping favourite poems by Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, I lurched off to my humble student digs somewhere in Cape Town central. I didn’t make it home for some vague reason to do with missing a bus and being waylaid by a pub in Rondebosch (Pig ’n Whistle, anyone remember?). Deeply moved by an evening of reading poems by two great poets who survived the hellish oppression of Poland under Russia (and too much alcohol), I decided to take on colonial oppression on my own and trekked up to Rhodes memorial. It’s one helluva walk, especially after a night of drinking with a then relatively unknown poet (Watson) who in those days could certainly put the booze away.

En route to having a piss on Cecil’ s statue I developed the urge to defecate, no doubt brought on by the spectacular amount we had to drink. I considered Rhodes’ statue for my toilet but settled, when I got there, for squatting on one of the lions. My last minute decision no doubt had to do with the Eiger-like difficulty of mounting the equestrian Rhodes himself* — mind you, back in his day he would have loved a charming, muscular, blue-eyed lad of 22. It was a monumental shit, forgive the pun, with a spectacular view of Cape Town below. I slept for the night somewhere in the shrubbery. The next day these events, beginning with having dinner with Stephen, inspired me to start a narrative poem which two or so years later I showed to my supervisor JM Coetzee, who commented, in a letter back to me, “this is an impressive piece of work”, and then …

Am I digressing? No. Personal history blends with the deeper history of a country and its past and present symbols, making an intricate chimera of identity. Would I have considered pissing on a statue of Steve Biko? Absolutely not. But there is just something so tame about writing about going for a shit in the woods instead of on an icon.

The removal of Rhodes’ statue is deeply symbolic. However, his history is intertwined with all our histories, so my point here is this. Where does removing reminders of tyranny end? Our oppression is part of what shapes us. What hurts the rose tree is the pruning, and the hurting is what makes the rose bush even more lovely and shapely, resonant with the history of pruning and the art of gardening. So why not prune away the religion Rhodes’ empire-building and his cruel monarchy stood for — Christianity?

Christianity has an infamous record for oppressing entire peoples. The Catholic Church in the time of Machiavelli. The Spanish Inquisition. The slaughter of the Incas. According to Christopher Hitchens’ argument, Catholics played a sinister role with the German Nazi Party. Or take Jesus Christ himself: he lived in a time of slavery and never in the gospels does he speak up against it. In fact, when he refers to slavery (the parable in Luke 12:45-48), he does not use this opportunity, or others, to speak out against slavery. His sermons and actions never speak against slavery, which strongly suggests Jesus accepted it, and therefore was in favour of it. It follows then, and of course this is “absurd”, that if Rhodes, a colonialist devoted to spreading the British Empire (and the Christian religion of that empire) has to go, then surely other emblems of slavery have to go, like images for Christ, and that entire Western, “non-African” religion? That, of course, is not going to happen.

By removing Rhodes’ statue and other reminders of Rhodes, we remove some of our own history. I respect Louise Ferreira’s view when she argues there is a difference between “acknowledging historical facts and glorifying the oppressor”. But we know what Cecil Rhodes was all about. He is not being glorified. He is an important reminder of our oppressive past because history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Cecil John Rhodes’ name has been transmogrified; there is a long legacy of intellectuals and students at both UCT and Rhodes University who have stood against apartheid (including this student) who still identify with their alma maters.

Even the scholarship’s name has been changed to the Rhodes-Mandela scholarship. The scholarship name reminds us of both our terrible oppression and our great liberty, which — let’s face it — is not liberty for the vast majority of South Africans. Which brings me to my main concern. This hullabaloo about changing names and knocking down statues diverts attention away from the genuine problems South Africa faces. And that is the very real oppression, corruption and wholesale poverty along with poor service delivery (Eskom leading the pack) the incumbent president and his cronies are inflicting on the nation. Everyone is making heavy weather of one name while the nation seems to be slowly going to hell. Makes you wonder who really initiated this sideshow distraction of statue toppling, hey?

A note on symbols. They are extremely powerful, and often misunderstood and underrated in materialistic societies. Part of their power is that they too, like alchemy, can transform and be transformed. The suffering, crucified Christ is also the healing Christ, the wounded healer. Though I am not a Christian, the Christian faith, in its rich diversity, its history of both oppression and freedom, is part of our collective ancestry and culture and is impossible to erase. Keeping the likes of Rhodes around (go on, put up a statue of Steve Biko next to him) reminds us of past oppressions, and should be reminding us of the tyranny and despotism currently taking place in this beautiful, rugged nation, South Africa. As Milan Kundera famously observed, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Ironically enough, this uproar to have Rhodes erased from iconic memory is itself a disturbing act of forgetting of what is happening right now in South Africa.

* I realise the statue is not necessarily of him but is a tribute to his “restless drive and determination“.

Author

  • CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from www.knowledgethirstmedia.co.za. His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/Rod_in_China

23 Comments

  1. doug doug 26 March 2015

    I think Rhode’s statue at UCT should be removed to a museum. We need to remember the past without honouring perpetrators of crimes.

    As far as Jesus goes, he is not an oppressor. There have been many horrific things done in his name but I challenge you to show evidence that he supported the Inquisition or the Crusades or any other violent action labelled Christian.

  2. rick baker rick baker 26 March 2015

    Good point! The devastation caused by religions in general over centuries would also justify removal of all religious symbols to be consistent. The followers will argue that the good aspects of religion outweighed the bad so therefore the symbols must stay. One cannot go through life removing everything that offends you in some way…there will be little that is left! Far better to retain them in the hope that, by debating and questioning them, the future will be improved.

  3. Jan Swart Jan Swart 27 March 2015

    Yes, it is common knowledge that Jesus Christ was all in favour of love and harmony. (Luke 14: 26 – 27 – “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his brother, mother, father, wife and children and his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”)

  4. exafrica exafrica 27 March 2015

    Interesting, this sudden English defence of symbols from the past. What would the response have been, had the university, in stead of Rhodes, been named Verwoerd? And what the response to statutes of Verwoerd etc scattered all over the place? (This is not a plea in favour of Verwoerd. In my mind it should be equally unacceptable to have a Verwoerd university as it is to have Rhodes university). Yet a considerable portion of the population, descended from people incacerated in concentration camps for which Victoria, Rhodes, Milner, Jameson, Roberts were directly responsible, must have these names pushed down our throats wherever we turn. Enter the Mount Nelson hotel, and one is faced with their portraits blasted all over the place.

  5. The Praetor The Praetor 27 March 2015

    ”Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.…” (Jesus)

    The Praetor

  6. TaylorvannieKaap TaylorvannieKaap 28 March 2015

    A correction: sorry Rod, but the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is entirely distinct from the Rhodes Scholarships. The Mandela Rhodes Foundation was formed in 2002, funded initially by the Rhodes Trust founded in 1902. Mandela Rhodes offers post-grad scholarships to Africans only in South African universities. The Rhodes Scholarships are selectively international (except Britain), and offer post-grad scholarships mainly at Oxford, but exceptionally elsewhere as well.

  7. P J van der Walt P J van der Walt 28 March 2015

    Steve Biko ‘s statue next to Rhodes — or in the vicinity — like that idea —- I think Biko will vibrate with progressiveness and will put old Cecil and his time specific imperialistic ideals in it’s place for all to see and learn — I think it’s also not so bad if this statue is removed with all due respect ( emphasis on DUE ) Rhodes was a product of his time — he was bound to be —-but I don’t think he deserve a lot more than a footnote, if you are looking back to now from 500 years in the future . Biko and Mandela that’s a whole different level these guys are moving and operating on more righteous spiritual vibrations while Cecil was probably just a rich schoolyard bully grown old ……

  8. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 29 March 2015

    Thanks Ewwald. I respect many Christians some of whom are my friends. But and here is my but, I have had enough of these sweet quotes about love your neighbour as a valid argument, and it is not: these precious quotes do not alter the truth. Jesus did NOT openly speak out against slavery, and Paul most certainly did not either. Jan Swart’s “lofty” quotes dreamily miss the point.

  9. rick baker rick baker 29 March 2015

    Where does someone like Shaka fit into this? He seems to have slaughtered and plundered with impunity….or will history be sanitised to remove anything bad about him? Rhodes was a shocker and so was Q Victoria etc because of their policies. And what about Castro…and Marx…streets named after them to honour their wonderful legacies?

  10. Jeffrey Jones Jeffrey Jones 29 March 2015

    So don’t frequent the Mount Nelson if it offends you.

  11. Jeffrey Jones Jeffrey Jones 29 March 2015

    Then again, did Verwoerd and Hitler donate fortunes to building excellent universities?

  12. John Story John Story 29 March 2015

    That Jesus Christ was apparently not against slavery has, I believe, to do with the reason for His being on earth. Jesus was not a social reformer and is not at a par with other religious figures nor with freedom fighters or empire builders. He had little time for the religious leaders he encoutered. The feeling was mutual because like so many today they did not or would not understand His mission. Which was not to liberate slaves or uplift people socially or to replace the empire builders of his time but to take away the sins of this world, to deliver men from evil, a concept which is even today hardly understoord. He ever only gave two commandments: Love God and love your neightbour. How we are to give this substance He leaves to us. Religion is all about following rules: do’s and don’ts, lots of them, or else. Or else God will punish you and if He does not we will do it in his name. That’s why the christian religion has along with other religions has wreaked so much havoc in the name of their god. So should all religious symbols be removed, also those of christianity, that will not stop the coming of His kingdom, which is in His own words ‘not of this world’.

  13. Jeffrey Jones Jeffrey Jones 29 March 2015

    The evil done in “God’s” name far exceeds the harm done by Rhodes and colonialism. In fact South Africa’s economy is largely founded on what Rhodes and the colonialists built. The destruction caused in “God’s” name continues to this day in the Middle East, at least no-one is killing anyone in Rhodes’ name today. All this in the name of an imaginary being. At least Rhodes did exist, for god or bad, in fact Rhodes did much that was good and much that was bad.

  14. John Story John Story 29 March 2015

    Churchill was talking about a british empire which might last for a thousand years, Verwoerd dreamed of a state of racial purity in South Africa and Hitler was looking for lebensraum. The symbols of Hitlers empire have all but vanished except on youtube. The point is that man is temporary and so are the symbols he builds be it cathedrals, monuments or ideologies. To be broken down and discarded by others after him. Often by means of violent upheaval claiming many lives. Vanity of vanities.

  15. Sipho Ndhlovu Sipho Ndhlovu 30 March 2015

    You the kinda guy that would probably say “because the cock crows at 5 am then it must cause the sun to rise”. You make a reckless statment by saying that if Jesus did not speak against slavery then he must have supported it. But there you just said. He simply did not speak about. How do we know he didnt condemn it? We simply dont know and surely the Bible does not write each and every word that came out of his mouth. As for Rhodes his action are not in dount at all. Stick to the issue at hand and stop grabbing at straws. By the way a statue by its very nature is put up to glorify someone, something I believe even you can grasp.

  16. Sipho Ndhlovu Sipho Ndhlovu 30 March 2015

    Divided on faith matters I believe as people are not converted en masse but as individuals hence the division in faith. As simple as that.

  17. Sipho Ndhlovu Sipho Ndhlovu 30 March 2015

    The Bible is not a literal document. Read everything in its context.

  18. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 30 March 2015

    Excellent post, Rod! Your argument is persuasive, but with selective symbolic “cleansing” on the cards, those people who should be receptive to it are bound to be blind and deaf to this logic of consistency. My puzzlement lies in this: why select symbols of 19th-century colonialism for purging, if the reality of the new kind of global economic “neo-colonialism”, namely market capitalism, is ignored. This is what they should object to – the way in which people and countries across the world are colonized, on a daily basis, by the market, without much benefit to themselves or their country.

  19. Makense Makense 30 March 2015

    for some of us Christianity is the cause of the albatross on the shoulder of the Alkabulan, if it was up to me and if the writer think Rhodes needs to take Jesus and Christianity with i will say good riddance. Unfortunately the legacy of the like of Rhodes and the missionaries still own the minds of Alkabulans until the nation is mentally emancipated and the realization that god existed in Alkabulan before the missionaries hit home Alkabulan shall never know real peace. for now I say take Rhodes and his god I dont need him.

  20. The Praetor The Praetor 30 March 2015

    It so happenes that certain people want to take one phrase or sentence from an entire chapter and say…’see, this is the intention of the author’, but they ignore the entire context of the message, and the bigger picture.

    This was a parable told by Jesus, inferring to the people He originally came to, but who denied Him, looking for various reasons why they did not, and His transferral of his blessings onto those who would accept him.

    Read the entire Gospel of Luke and be wise

    The Praetor

  21. Nyanga paNyatate Nyanga paNyatate 14 April 2015

    with money they got from where…? is it not from the plunder and abuse of the resources of the native nations they abused? how can someone steal from you then become a hero if they donate some of the loot to your family?

  22. Nyanga paNyatate Nyanga paNyatate 14 April 2015

    why dont u let the victims of Tshaka decide about that? who are u to speak on their behalf?? the victims of rhodes spoke, and the victims of kruger and verwoerd are speaking. if u are a victim of anything then state ur case. but then, i suppose oppression to you means being forced to eat your vegetables, or missing happy hour at the club. go figure…

  23. rick baker rick baker 15 April 2015

    Hindsight makes it easy to be selective. The real issue throughout history has been the oppression of the weak by the strong and powerful. “What we should learn from history is that we do not learn from history”. Mugabe is as bad as Rhodes ever was albeit on a smaller scale. Zuma’s government appears to be going down the same road…”power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and we will see it happening over and over.

Leave a Reply