It should be pretty obvious that Cecil John Rhodes would be largely considered a repulsive person by today’s modern moral standards, which favour equality. Anyone who, like Rhodes, acquires insane amounts wealth on the back of mass exploitation of a marginalised people would most likely be considered notorious and not be regarded as a hero. By the same token, someone who highly regards education and donates all of their fortunes to help fund high performing students and institutions of higher learning would be regarded as exceptional. It is very important to note that South Africa does indeed have a responsibility to redress the atrocities from previous unjust regimes but does this have to be done in a way that edits and distorts history? I think not.
The University of Cape Town (UCT), often ranked as Africa’s premier institution of higher learning, was massively advanced by the handsome funds donated by the extremely wealthy British imperialist when he died in 1902. As a result, a large statue in honour of Rhodes resides at the centre of the renowned university and has continued to spark much controversy and protest more than 110 years after his death. Many of the protesters have argued the statue to be offensive and have ordered for it to be removed through marches and even throwing human faeces on what they say is a symbol of all the ills that Rhodes stood for and benefitted from such as white supremacy, racism, imperialism, robbery and the oppression of the black African majority. History indeed confirms that these views are based on truth as much of his wealth was acquired by greedy, self-serving methods that often had African people forcefully evicted and dispossessed of their land.
Let’s say that we concede that Rhodes was a despicable person. I still do not think that means that we have to completely erase his profound contribution to the history of UCT, Rhodes University, Cape Town and possibly even southern Africa as a whole. Doing so could be problematic and is not in the interests of presenting the truth in the right light. We cannot take the good without the bad. Many people know of Rhodes and his contribution to the founding of UCT because of that statue. The controversial nature of the statue also further highlights South Africa’s often problematic history. This is something we should not hide from. To remove it would simply remove an essential part of the institution’s past that has contributed to everything good, bad and ugly about the university and arguably even our country.
UCT is no different to the majority of South African institutions established prior to the dawn of democracy and has also inherited many problems from previous regimes; some of which are the direct legacy of men and women like Rhodes. Lack of transformation is one of the commonly mentioned issues as the composition of both staff and student body is argued to not adequately mirror the demographics of the country.
Furthermore, doing so presents a major problem of where to draw the line with regards to the deliberate editing of history to remove controversial former leaders and unfortunate events that have played an influential role in South Africa’s narrative. What stays and what goes?
Here’s an illustrative example. Shaka Zulu, a man of equal controversy, advanced the Zulu kingdom by violently obliterating and dispossessing many neighbouring Xhosa, Sotho and Swati people of their land. As a Xhosa person, I may rightfully be offended when having to fly through an airport in his honour considering that some of his triumphs were thanks to what I now consider questionable morals. I’m not sure that this discomfort would constitute enough to propose that his rightful place in history be edited to protect my sensitivities however. This is true of Rhodes as well. The same also applies to all other contentious monuments that honour salient parts of our history that we might not entirely be proud of such as Robben Island, The Castle of Good Hope and even the Voortrekker Monument. The same applies to other parts of the world with equally dreadful historical leaders and symbols of oppression for that matter. Removing these does not change the future.
As a black UCT alumnus that walked past that statue throughout my four years at UCT, I think that the statue should be left exactly where it is because it is an essential part of the university’s history. What should not be left are the real issues that have arisen from the legacy of some of the wrongdoings of those like Rhodes. Those should be marched against and urgently attended to. I wish the same amount of energy that is being used to campaign for the removal of the statue was put into properly championing for faster and better transformation of our country by ensuring a more just and sound education system with representative institutions, better access to student funding and more of the universities that have been promised by the department of higher education and training as these are what will lead to real change and not the removal of a statue.