A good seven or eight years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, students arrived on campus one morning to find that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes had been defaced with red spray paint.
The message read, “Fuck your dream of empire”.
I don’t really recall what my reaction was at the time. I probably thought it was wrong to vandalise university property. But I was what might sneeringly be called a “white liberal”: a mostly open-minded, well-intentioned kid who was nevertheless ignorant of political nuance. I thought the statue should be preserved as part of the university’s history.
Nearly a decade later, I believe that Rhodes must fall.
I am no longer comfortable with my alma mater honouring someone who was a colonialist and an imperialist, and proud to be one. Rhodes wrote in his will that the British are “the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings … ”.
He was instrumental to the Jameson Raid (which led to his resignation as prime minister), one of the contributing factors that led to the South African War (Anglo-Boer War).
As with any controversy, there are arguments against the removal of the statue. I will try to address a few of them here.
‘Removing the statue will be erasing history’
There is an important distinction between acknowledging historical facts and glorifying the legacy of an oppressor. In a statement issued by UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price, he explains that it is the “particular location and setting of the Rhodes statue that is the problem”: “It is because the brooding presence of Cecil John Rhodes is located in pride of place, at the focal point of the campus, that it acquires the connotations of founder, hero, patron, role model, and embodiment of UCT’s heritage.”
No statue of Hendrik Verwoerd would remain in such a prominent position on any campus. It is for the same reason that streets are renamed; not because history must be erased but because naming a street after someone denotes honour.
‘It’s just a symbol’
This is a remarkably disingenuous argument. Symbols are considered symbols precisely because they carry meaning. With the advent of democracy we changed the national flag because the old one was a symbol of apartheid South Africa, not because Parliament’s interior decorator decided it was time to spruce things up. When Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr performed “Die Stem” last year, the people who defended his right to do so were largely the same ones who didn’t want Julius Malema singing “Dubul’ iBhunu”.
‘He donated land and money to the university’
How wonderful that educational opportunities could come from this man’s avarice, and that women are now also able to benefit. It is fitting that his legacy could be turned around to help educate thousands of students.
‘Morality was different then’
This argument surprised me: The idea that historical figures should not be judged because their actions were acceptable by the standards of their time. The first problem here is that all manner of sins — like slavery — can be justified by this logic. The second is that even in his own time, Rhodes was not universally liked or admired.
On his death in 1902, The Guardian published a scathing obituary of Rhodes: “[The] spectacle of anarchy, ruin and hatred that filled South Africa at the time of his death offers a tragic warning to the practitioners of narrowly materialistic statecraft. … [The] judgement of history will, we fear, be that he did more than any Englishman of his time to lower the reputation and to impair the strength and compromise the future of the Empire.”
‘We should focus on forgiveness/reconciliation/engagement’
This argument is embodied in a statement by the DA, which says that UCT students “should emulate Mandela’s values”. Invoking the name of Mandela in this way dismisses legitimate anger, makes yet another assumption about “what Madiba would have done” (“Mandela did not support the tearing down of monuments”) and quashes debate by insisting that there is only one right approach. Respecting Madiba’s legacy should include the effective use of anger — although I agree that human faeces should not be involved.
Rhodes is not the only problematic symbol on campus. Jameson Hall, after all, is named after one Leander Starr of the Jameson Raid. Even the student nickname, Ikeys, began as an anti-Semitic slur (used by students at Stellenbosch University). The fact that it is mainly the statue evoking students’ ire shows exactly how much antipathy exists towards Rhodes.
Let us respect the changing of the tide, and remove the old man.