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The Rhodes statue, erasing the past and importance of memory

The Czech writer Milan Kundera begins his unforgettable novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Perennial Classics, 1999), with the following words:

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fate­ful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The propaganda section made hundreds of thou­sands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

“Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head … the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

This passage is as relevant to the history of power struggles in this country — South Africa — as it was in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), where Kundera comes from. What is at stake in the current hue and cry about removing the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the UCT campus, and changing the name of Rhodes University, is precisely what Kundera here depicts as strategies of erasing someone — or rather, what is represented by someone — from history, for the sake of asserting a new constellation of power. In the process those advancing the cause of removing these unwanted symbols of the dominant powers of yesteryear — in this case Cecil Rhodes, who symbolises the imperial power of Britain during the 19th century — are in the process of erasing memory in the name of the ascendant power in South Africa today (I’m not sure what to call it — Africa nationalism?).

Apart from the relevance of Kundera’s reflections on the significance of erasing pictures of people, or their statues, from history, a remark by Michel Foucault, in his inaugural lecture — The Order of Discourse (sometimes translated as The Discourse on Language) — is equally applicable here. Foucault observed that when there is a struggle for power, the first thing to be seized is “discourse”, that is, language used in the service of (ideological) power. This is what we are witnessing here — the discourse aspiring to power is evident in everything that the protesters fighting for Rhodes’ demise (at least of his name and of his statue) is saying and writing to justify their desires and actions. The statue itself as a three-dimensional image also has a discursive function, of course, insofar as it “distributes the sensible” (Jacques Rancière) of the imperial historical past in a manner that clashes violently with the cratological aspirations of the protesters.

Further on in Kundera’s novel (p.79) there is a conversation in which a historian, Milan Hubl, comments on what the “President of Forgetting” (as Kundera calls him), Gustav Husak, has done to erase traces of memory from the collective consciousness of the Czech people:

” ‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hubl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.’ ”

I know that readers might respond by asking who “the people” in the case of the Rhodes issue might be — does the term “people” here denote all the people living in South Africa at present, or does it refer to “the people” who comprised the nation — (or a part of it) sometime in the past? The answer, of course, is that I am talking about the people who are citizens of the country at present. And my own belief is that, to erase ANY part of the chequered history of this (or any other) country, is to do the people of the present and of the future a disservice, because it would rob citizens of valuable knowledge of an episode of its past.

What? “Valuable” knowledge of a part of its past? Yes, because even a negative, painful, and deservedly censured and condemned episode of South Africa’s (and the rest of the continent’s) past, including that in which Cecil John Rhodes played a part, and including the history of apartheid, MUST be remembered so that the memory of the excesses and ravages of imperialism and of racist oligarchic rule NEVER be repeated.

Here, too, I anticipate howls of derision, challenging me on the question, whether preserving the name of Cecil Rhodes in an institution, or in a statue, is not obviously a sign of approval or even glorification of what he stood for. I don’t believe it is necessarily the case. As a person, Rhodes, like any other person who left his or her footprint in history, was a multi-facetted man, who cannot be reduced to only one thing, namely someone who, as representative of a once-powerful empire, stands solely for the exploitation of the erstwhile subjugated races of Africa.

He also contributed and, through the stipulations of his Will as actualised in the Rhodes Trust still contributes to the education of many South Africans and individuals from other countries in the world. I am talking about the well-known Rhodes Scholarships (to which can be added the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarships) which are awarded annually to successful applicants, selected solely on merit (as I know from experience; I served on the selection committee for Rhodes Scholarships of the Eastern Cape region for five years) for study at Oxford University in Britain. Here is a relevant excerpt from Politicsweb:

“Hundreds of South Africans compete each year for the Rhodes Scholarships, valued at about R300,000 per year. The Rhodes Scholarships were created by the Will of Cecil John Rhodes and awarded for the first time in 1902. Each year, about 90 Rhodes Scholars are selected worldwide from countries including South Africa, the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, Zambia, India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand.

“In South Africa, the Scholarships are awarded to graduates from any South African province and, per Rhodes’ Will, to alumni of four high schools — Diocesan College, Rondebosch; South African College School, Newlands; Paul Roos Gymnasium, Stellenbosch; and St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.”

The Rhodes Scholarship are awarded to people of all races, as anyone can verify, and many world leaders are among its recipients (including Bill Clinton). The point I am making is simply that, to change the name of Rhodes University and to tear down Rhodes’ statue in Cape Town will erase from collective memory a name that stands for many things, not all of them bad. If these are retained instead, anyone will still be able to question Rhodes’ significance for South African history, and come to an INFORMED decision about its importance. One should not practice the “politics of forgetting”; by doing so, one would be doing the same thing that Husak did in Czechoslovakia.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Bruce McDonald Bruce McDonald 25 March 2015

    I wonder how many white academics are supporting this “protest” while nervously looking over their shoulders should they be denounced as anti-transformation. Denouncing people who don’t think like you was and still is a very powerful tool used to suppress speech and ideas that don’t correspond to the current groupthink/zeitgeist.

  2. Shabba Shabba 26 March 2015

    What are the memories lost or forgotten if we place him in a museum speaking of his past?

  3. Shabba Shabba 26 March 2015

    What memories are erased if we place him in a museum?

  4. Farai Morobane Farai Morobane 26 March 2015

    This is incredibly shocking.
    This is so far divorced from reality. “‘You
    begin to liquidate a people,’ Hubl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You
    destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books
    for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the
    people slowly begin to forget what it is and what it was.'” Sir let me be very clear,
    the history of colonialism in this country is etched in our everyday
    lives, we LIVE it. It isn’t a distant memory of pains that have been swept
    under the rug because life is so much better and we can go to Rhodes University
    and even Oxford based “solely on merit”-which I suppose we should also be grateful for? What
    does that even mean? Have you considered ANY of the concepts you’re using? Have
    you given any thought whatsoever to this? You speak of Michael Foucault, Milan
    Kundera, who outside of the safe walls of carefully crafted (primarily inaccessible)
    walls of academia, really don’t mean anything to the everyday effects of
    history. Furthermore, black people NEVER wrote this history to begin with, what
    do you mean other people will come write it for you?

    But mostly, it’s this
    logic of ‘keep the statue up so history doesn’t repeat itself’. We don’t need
    statues to remember, we remember all the time, colonialism wasn’t an “episode”
    in SA history. That word implies a clear beginning and end. Colonialism was the
    genesis of a new moment in history-and nothing was ever the same. Please understand
    the effects still persist, in a very direct manner.

    These students aren’t
    fighting for the statue to go down because they want to wipe this man who you’ve
    somehow managed to make sound virtuous-out of history. The cost benefit
    analysis of this is: the weight of wanting to keep it up because history
    shouldn’t be wiped out is WAY less than the weight of what it represents; pain,
    oppression and the approval of that by an institution that is already incredibly
    white. You don’t think it is “necessarily” the case that keeping these symbols shows
    approval and glorification-you like philosophy- Sir I’d argue that it is essentially so.

  5. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 26 March 2015

    What I find “shocking”, Farai, is that you have evidently not understood a thing that I’ve written.

  6. Charlie Massey Charlie Massey 27 March 2015

    A friend of mine’s son is currently working on an essay about the Rwandan Genocide … The parallels between the Hutu’s perceptions of the Tutsi and the black movement against perceptions pertaining to white South Africans is very, very chilling ……

  7. Udo Erik Udo Erik 28 March 2015

    Isn’t it astonishing how misdirected people’s anger can be? Instead of targeting the neocolonialism of today – neoliberalism – they target that of the 19th century!

  8. Isaac Newton Isaac Newton 15 April 2015

    Out of sight, out of mind. And, of course, we cannot stop with Rhodes. Once we start, we are committed to remove everything . . . .

  9. Isaac Newton Isaac Newton 15 April 2015

    Farai, the very same sentiments that you set forth, exactly, were repeatedly expressed in Czechoslovakia as the images and monuments of its people were systematically removed and destroyed by the new rulers of that country in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In fact, the very same sentiments were also expressed in Zimbabwe in the year 1999-2002. Hold it. I know, you fully support Robert Mugabe and his salvation of Zimbabwe. That’s why you never raised your voice during his Royal Tour through South Africa last week.

  10. Shabba Shabba 15 April 2015

    But has Germany forgotten about the Holocaust?

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