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Take it down

I know someone who — shall we say — passed water on Cecil John Rhodes’ grave in the Matopos Hills in southern Zimbabwe.

The National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare removed its own CJR statue in the 1980s and stuck it behind the building with some rusting tractors.

Poor CJR. All he wanted was to be an insanely rich gay man and enlarge the British empire by hook or by crook. But no. He had to go and die at the age of 48 and be remembered for his slogan, “equal rights for all civilized men”.

CJR believed that to be born British was to win first prize in the lottery of life. By British, he didn’t just mean not French. He also meant white. To be civilised meant to be male, white and British — or close enough as never mind. His statue gazes avidly northwards towards the very same Cairo that he hoped one day to annex to the empire. Never mind that he can actually only see as far as Athlone. The point is that the statue is a constant reminder that the University of Cape Town’s land was donated by Rhodes, and the university was funded, structured and run to produce manly, white, British knowledge — or close enough as never mind.


“Equal rights for all civilised men” was the basis of the policy of the qualified franchise in which blacks had to gain property or education to reach the starting point that every white adult was granted as a birthright. South Africa’s mainstream liberals marched under the banner of the qualified franchise until the late 1970s. If UCT still cannot bear to rid itself of this painful reminder of a mistaken and insulting creed, it suggests that same liberalism continues to percolate in the university’s bloodstream. That is what I hear the UCT students saying.

That CJR is still lashed to UCT’s prow means that in the realm of symbolism, the university has not repudiated what he stood (or in this case, sits) for. Dithering about removing the statue is not a good idea. Dithering disguises and detracts from the continuation of the good work that UCT has done in transforming itself in the realms of access and learning. It solidifies the university’s image as being willing to go down with a sinking ship, the HMS Clueless. Because if the university administration and council will defend the continued symbolism of someone as indefensible as CJR, what else will they do — and not do?


Fittingly, the students are occupying the Mafeje Room in Bremner Building, echoing the 1968 sit-in called to protest UCT’s shameful acquiescence to the apartheid state’s demand to rescind an employment offer to a black anthropologist, Dr Archie Mafeje. UCT has since apologised and named a room and a lecture series after Mafeje. But has the lesson truly been learnt? UCT was on the wrong side of history in 1968; in 2015 it should remove Rhodes’ statue — and address the students’ other, deep grievances.

Terri Barnes, associate professor of history and gender/women’s studies, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Image – Students protest outside UCT’s Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price on March 18, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Gallo)


  • Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University of the Western Cape.