The statue of Cecil John Rhodes, 19th century Cape prime minister, southern African mining magnate, and British imperialist, is to be removed from its commanding position over the rugby fields of the University of Cape Town. 

In response to pressure from a small but effectively organised gang of students — who alternated the shock tactics of smearing the statue with their faeces and their admirable talent for manufacturing faux outrage on social media — the university authorities quickly caved in. Buoyed, their next target is to have Rhodes’ name removed from the Eastern Cape university named after him. 

Not to be left out, the young commissars of Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party are again all set to physically exhume Rhodes’ bones from their last resting place in the koppies of the Matopos and “send him home to Britain”. When this was previously threatened, prior to the 2013 elections, President Robert Mugabe quickly slapped them down, but maybe this time he will choose to surf this naïve nationalistic passion rather than check it. 

Rhodes was undoubtedly a nasty piece of work. The anaemic, weakling son of a Church of England vicar, sissy Cecil was despatched as a teenager to the Natal colony for health reasons. Like many noxious invasive aliens — lantana, khakibos, and wattle all spring to mind — Rhodes unfortunately thrived in our bracing southern clime.

He set off to the diamond fields of Kimberley and by a process off guile and bullying built a staggeringly large fortune. Rhodes then set about applying this fortune and his skills at political skulduggery to bring the continent under the “civilising” influence of the British flag.

I remember from my childhood the particularly virulent hatred that the Afrikaner had towards Rhodes. This was hardly surprising, given that he had assiduously stoked the fires of the Anglo-Boer War, in which the Afrikaner nation was laid waste. 

The British, supported and encouraged by Rhodes, razed 30 000 Boer farms. In their concentration camps more than 4 000 Boer women and 22 000 children, weakened by short rations and the inhospitable conditions, perished from disease.  

Yet Rhodes was also the greatest philanthropist this country has known. UCT, Rhodes and the University of the Witwatersrand became centres of world excellence in no small measure because of his generous endowments. He funded one of the most prestigious post-graduate scholarships in the world, which each year generously funds 83 exceptional students, including seven from South Africa, to the University of Oxford. 

Nor is Rhodes by any means the nastiest figure from our conflict ridden past. The Zulu king Shaka, whose statue is soon to grace the international airport that already bears his name, was as prolific and ruthless an empire builder and at greater human cost. 

His conquest of neighbouring tribes set off a ripple of displacement and tribal conflict in which between a million and two million people died. Although nationalist revisionists dispute the exact numbers, no one disputes that scores of thousands, including women and children, were systematically and brutally killed by his forces

And so what? Whether Rhodes or Shaka – or Verwoerd for that matter – was the most despicable figure in our bloodstained history is immaterial. They were creatures of their time, their actions melded who and what we are, and it is pointless to judge them through the prism of 21st century mores and values, though we may usefully hope to avoid replicating their actions.

The Afrikaner nationalists who wrested political control in 1948 largely left intact the footprints of the imperialists that they so hated. In the interests of white unity there was no concerted attempt to eradicate the history of the English-language community. 

In order similarly to build unity between black and white, it was an approach that Nelson Mandela echoed. There is a deep symbolism in that the scholarship founded by the jingoistic Rhodes – “we are the finest race in the world and the more of the world that we inhabit the better” – now is called the Mandela Rhodes scholarship and has been bolstered by funds generated by Mandela’s efforts on its behalf. It’s a symbolism that the faeces smearers and their cheerleaders appear not to understand.

If one’s antipathy towards Rhodes is unendurably intense, there are alternatives to futilely trying to backwash history. One could, for example, make a political statement by enrolling not at Rhodes University, with its exploitatively sourced imperialist endowments, but at the more modestly outfitted but politically acceptable Walter Sisulu University. And one can simply decline to apply for the Mandela Rhodes scholarship.

The urge to rewrite history is profoundly totalitarian. It is based on an intolerance of difference, an assumption of superiority, and a childlike desire for a simple narrative. That university leaders so readily acquiesce in doing so does not bode well for academic rigour. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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