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Poo-pooing the Rhodes historical narrative

In two years, Cape Town has experienced two rather rude awakenings in the form of “poo protests” in normally sanitised areas meant to represent the best of the Western Cape’s development. The first protest, organised by the disenfranchised Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, was meant to highlight the deplorable conditions of toilets in informal settlements and townships across Cape Town. It was a clash of two different and highly unequal worlds as the stench and rot that many have to encounter daily was brought into the Cape Town Airport and Legislature in 2013 — an infringement of the cordon sanitaire that is often inaccessible in townships.

The second protest took place more recently at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and featured several students throwing excrement at the long-standing statue of Rhodes on Upper Campus. The exact details of those involved remain murky, but what is clear is that the protest was organised against “white arrogance” and the ways in which black students are treated at institutions of higher learning. At face value, it might seem that the only thing these protests have in common is the use of human excrement to highlight a grievance, and this may be true. In some ways, the UCT protests are a direct deviation from the initial protests organised by Ses’khona. Being at the university already places one in the ranks of educated elite. Many of those who make it onto the stage to accept their certificates are more likely to find employment than their counterparts with no formal post-high school education. A good number of students are recruited fresh from graduation by numerous South African corporates. Membership in this university elite is complicated, for many black students the reality of township life or being the first generation in university is ever-present. So too are the barriers seen and unseen that make timely graduation unlikely.

But being at an institution like UCT also comes with its own complex participation in Rhodes’ colonial legacy — as students benefit from the view from the mountain over the rest of Cape Town, access to flushing toilets, wi-fi and leading academic thinkers, a reality that is perceivable but inaccessible for South Africa’s majority.

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But the class inequality created through increased economic and educational participation of formerly disadvantaged groups is representative of a positive trend. It points to further economic integration not possible during apartheid, and provides unimaginable benefits for the handful of students that make it through our universities. But it is also true that the harsh inequalities South Africa is witnessing are as much systematic as they are symptomatic.

It is no secret that compromises were made at the onset of our new political dispensation, many of which were less than desirable. This has also included the naming, upholding and celebration of historical figures — but often with exclusion of other historical narratives pertinent to the formation of identity among young non-white South Africans. Growing up in small mining towns in the North West, I was taught South African history from the arrival of Jan van Riebeek, and conquests of the Voortrekkers. Any knowledge I acquired of Steve Biko, Archie Mafeje or Albert Luthuli was through my own reading while the brutality of apartheid was inferred rather than directly addressed in my schooling curriculum. I can only imagine for some of my white counterparts that the formal curricula and narrative meant that discussions of white privilege and the structural consequences of apartheid were severely limited. Every year we continued to visit the Danie Theron monument outside of Fochville, without consideration of the Hector Pieterson Memorial, or the Apartheid Museum.

This lack of direct discussion on contentious markers of history bears direct consequence on how we envision our society going forward. Is there truly space for all narratives? For those calling Rhodes a part of their culture and negating the intention behind the UCT protests, a more serious question remains: What part of Rhodes and his legacy informs this association and what elements of that culture have you chosen to uphold and enforce? Because no one culture is better than the next, it is crucial that this choice be made with consideration of the great cost to human life and dignity that accompanied Rhodes’ conquests — some of which have consequences for today. It is important that we recognise all heroes of our tumultuous history in areas shared by all races, not simply in the townships where many of these commemorations currently stand.

Whatever our opinions of the poo-protest methods, the perceptions are important for engaging the debate about our history and the role protagonists of the past play in our common, complicated identity as South Africans. Perhaps if we better understand where others have come from, we can better address the symptoms of an economic and political system that thrives on great inequality.

Image – Danie van der Merwe/flickr

Author

  • Masana Ndinga-Kanga is currently Senior Research Officer at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. When she is not trying to make sense of the chaos of living, she is an avid family-fanatic, and untrained wine, coffee and chocolate enthusiast. With a multi-disciplinary background in politics, economics, international development and law, Masana has an MSc in Political Economy of Late Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to this, she worked as the Machel-Mandela Intern at The Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg and is also an alumnus of the South African Washington Internship Program and a Chevening Scholar from 2012–13. You can follow her on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/NdingaSana She writes in her personal capacity.

23 Comments

  1. DavyH DavyH 12 March 2015

    UCT is situated on land bequeathed to the state by the same CJ Rhodes. Is there any reason his statue should NOT be there?

  2. Shingi Shingi 12 March 2015

    The land that he acquired through imperialistic measures?

  3. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 12 March 2015

    I think that your comment begins to address a more pertinent question about land ownership but doesn’t go as far as to query the circumstances surrounding CJR’s acquisition of the land in the first place. This popular response to the positioning of the Rhodes statue on campus tends to view African history from the start of colonisation. So my question to you would be, given the way in which Rhodes’ acquired the land, is the any reason why his statue SHOULD be there?

  4. nicholaswoodesmith nicholaswoodesmith 12 March 2015

    Well, that would not be him personally. That would have been the Dutch a few hundred years before him.

  5. Craig Craig 12 March 2015

    I think it takes great restraint and much forgiveness for anyone who knows South African history NOT to throw poo at Rhodes’ statue.

  6. Klaus Muller Klaus Muller 13 March 2015

    Imperialistic measure being?

  7. Richard Richard 15 March 2015

    How do you intend redressing the land claims of the Khoi and San? After all, they owned the land before black people arrived from the Great Lakes area? Should the Xhosa and Zulu pay them reparations? Their land was colonised by invaders, after all.

  8. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 15 March 2015

    Imperialistic? As in bequeathed by a king?

  9. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 15 March 2015

    To all accounts, Rhodes was a scoundrel of monumental proportions. He was, however, a part of our history and the patron of the university. As much as we wish it differently, we can’t wish it away. The world was a very different place, back then. Great men, like Alexander and uShaka would be considered despicable today – back then, they were brave heroes. Today, Rhodes would be locked up for fraud, corruption and market manipulation – back then, he was a bold pioneer. I wonder how harshly history will judge our current actions?

  10. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 15 March 2015

    From what I know, Rhodes purchased the land. Was the seller entitled to sell it? That is a completely different question. We then have to go back to the question of who owned the land and if anyone actually owned the land. We also have to question how land was acquired back then and how far back we must go to find out who was there first. King Goodwill may not want us going back too far.

  11. Jon Low Jon Low 15 March 2015

    “Whatever our opinions of the poo-protest methods, the perceptions are
    important for engaging the debate about our history and the role
    protagonists of the past play in our common, complicated identity as
    South Africans.”

    Poo-chucking is not debating. It’s disgusting.

  12. Jon Low Jon Low 15 March 2015

    Rhodes bought the land, with his own money. Just as how you own your land.

  13. Jon Low Jon Low 15 March 2015

    Bought for in plain old Pounds Sterling — same as everyone else does, to this day (even if the name of the currency changed in 1961).

  14. BrowniePerson BrowniePerson 16 March 2015

    Land he had every right to, of course.

  15. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 16 March 2015

    Interesting observation. I think that anyone encountering the excrement of another person would feel that way. Let’s hope you feel as strongly about the sanitary conditions (or lack thereof) facing a great number of South Africans, and that in the absence of them throwing excrement in/around you that you actively engage in debate to improve these conditions.

  16. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 16 March 2015

    Thanks RSA.MommaCyndi… responding as well to your first comment, I think that there are two separate issues at stake here that are being blurred and compounded into one:

    1. Land redistribution based on our difficult history
    2. The placing, and inadvertent (or blatant, now that time has passed) celebration of historical figures despite their terrible actions.

    To refer to 2, which this post addresses, I personally find it problematic that the statue is still standing where it is on Upper Campus. I think moving it into a museum that contextualizes that grotesque role Rhodes played in the South African political economy would be a better place for it. This in no way rewrites history or ignores Rhodes, instead it rightly places him where he should be – not overlooking a land that he brutally conquered.

  17. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 16 March 2015

    Hi Richard, this post isn’t about land redistribution but I think that’s an important question. How far back do we go to right the wrongs of history? Even the relationship between the Khoi and San would be judged as unjust given that they weren’t a homogeneous group.

    But we don’t have to go as far back as the pre-colonial era to see a direct effect of unjust land policy though – how about we start by addressing the masses of people living in townships as a result of forced removals? Or those removed from fertile agricultural land and now living in homelands which are some of the most impoverished parts of SA today.

    How would you address that?

  18. Draken101 Draken101 16 March 2015

    Well for one why don’t we actually have a real debate instead of demanding the statues removal outright. Oh and social media is not a good debate forum its full of racism and hate speech from all sides. A real debate really would be great.

  19. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 16 March 2015

    You’re welcome to attend the debates at UCT this week!

  20. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 16 March 2015

    I don’t know the answers, Masana. I know we can’t ignore history and I know we can’t keep trying to rewrite it. We also can’t keep pretending that it wasn’t a pretty brutal world back then.

    1. Land redistribution has to be done honestly. For all the bad things that my tribe did, they were obsessive compulsive about keeping records. Use that. Don’t give some ‘king’ the land, give it to the descendants of the person who was disenfranchised. The fact that we have huge amounts of open veld but only successful farms are wanted, says a lot about the authenticity of some claims. Some guy wants half of Pretoria – Mzilikhazi had just been through here so I very much doubt he was around when the voortrekkers arrived ….
    Then we have to ask why they want the land. Land is worthless dirt – it is what you DO with the land that adds value. We have a surprisingly small amount of arable land and a scary growth in population. Food security should be of major importance …. and all goats should be banished from the continent!

    2. I don’t agree with ANY statues of people. Statues should be inspirational and not trying to make gods out of some dead guy. History belongs in museums, text books and memory. An artistic statue of Nomkhubulwane making a desert bloom or a baobab hiding a man with a true heart, would be far more inspirational than a statue of some oke who killed someone and it would still be relevant 200 years from now ….
    Our country needs to learn the difference between knowing the past and living in some idealised version of it.

    That is my view – for now – but it is something I am willing to see differently.

  21. vdmerwe vdmerwe 18 March 2015

    I feel that the person doing the poo protest is not a liberated person, he is imprisoned in his own racial paradigm. His thinking is very much an apartheid mindset because he can only think in terms of black and white, he doesn’t go further than that. In his mind all white people are evil and all blacks are oppressed. Divisive thinking like that perpetuates the legacy of apartheid. He has not liberated himself from his mental dependence on racism.

  22. vdmerwe vdmerwe 18 March 2015

    of course this has to be a addressed, but it must be addressed in a level headed consensual manner and not revolutionary style, that is the style of the poo protester which is facist and will end in a Zimbabwe scenario where the poor suffer the most. revolutionaries are not respectors of law and order nor human rights. What about the rights of the person who had to clean up after the poo protestor?

  23. Hlambamanzi Hlambamanzi 22 March 2015

    The Khoi, San, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda, Shangane are all African people
    who were victimized by CJR imperialism. All Africa must be paid reparations
    by those European nations that participated in enslaving and colonization
    of Africa.

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