SA mulls over Ce­cil Rhodes’ mixed le­gacy

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — Only a fig­ure as in­trigu­ing as Ce­cil John Rhodes could still man­age to stir con­tro­versy more than a cen­tury af­ter his death. The Bri­tish in­dus­tri­al­ist and colo­nial­ist is un­der fire in 2015 by young South Africans, who say his im­age is un­fairly glo­ri­fied and needs to be scrubbed from in­sti­tu­tions like the ven­er­a­ble Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town.

The na­tion’s rul­ing party agrees, though for the mo­ment Rhodes’ le­gacy re­mains part of the ed­u­ca­tional land­scape.

Judg­ing from his own words, Ce­cil John Rhodes would have a hard time in to­day’s mul­ti­cul­tural South Africa. The Bri­tish-born min­ing mag­nate, in­dus­tri­al­ist and politi­cian came to the African con­ti­nent as a teen in the 1870s, and had this to say about his adopted home:

“Africa is still ly­ing ready for us,” he wrote in 1877. “It is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize ev­ery op­por­tu­nity of ac­quir­ing more ter­ri­tory and we should keep this one idea steadily be­fore our eyes: that more ter­ri­tory sim­ply means more of the An­glo-saxon race: more of the best the most hu­man, most hon­ourable race the world pos­sesses.”

It is for pro­nounce­ments like that that stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town, South Africa’s top aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion that was built on land do­nated by Rhodes, want his im­age re­moved. In the past month, stu­dents have pelted his prom­i­nent statue with ex­cre­ment, amid claims he is the very em­bod­i­ment of “white ar­ro­gance”.

Late last month, the uni­ver­sity se­nate voted 181 to one to re­move the statue from cam­pus to an un­de­cided lo­ca­tion.

The move has also prompted dis­cus­sion at South Africa’s Rhodes Uni­ver­sity, which is con­sid­er­ing chang­ing its name.

The rul­ing African Na­tional Congress, which has dom­i­nated South African pol­i­tics since the end of apartheid in 1994, has also given its sup­port to the stu­dent move­ment.

“Rhodes’s name is syn­ony­mous with the dark­est era of our coun­try’s his­tory, in which black peo­ple were sub­jected to a mur­der­ous, un­just, in­hu­mane, crim­i­nal and op­pres­sive sys­tem on the ba­sis of the colour of their skin,” the ANC said in a state­ment.

“… Hav­ing mon­u­ments glo­ri­fy­ing the le­gacy of such in­di­vid­u­als who em­body such an evil sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly at a uni­ver­sity, which is still strug­gling with racial trans­for­ma­tion more than 20 years into democ­racy, un­der­mines our on-go­ing en­deav­our for na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and unity.”

Mr Rhodes may be dead, but the pro­test­ers say the prob­lem is that his le­gacy of white supremacy is alive and well in the Rain­bow Na­tion. For ex­am­ple, they say, UCT’S aca­demic staff is over­whelm­ingly white, and there still ex­ist deep di­vi­sions be­tween black and white stu­dents.

South Africa, wrote UCT Con­sti­tu­tional law pro­fes­sor Pierre De Vos, is “en­tan­gled with the past be­cause ev­ery­thing all of us as­sumed, ev­ery­thing we be­lieved, ev­ery­thing drummed into our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness over 350 years of colo­nial con­quest and racial dom­i­na­tion did not evap­o­rate into thin air in 1994.”

The na­tion may have ended the racist apartheid sys­tem that year, but eco­nomic in­equal­ity has not kept pace with that so­cial trans­for­ma­tion. For ex­am­ple, the last cen­sus found the av­er­age white fam­ily earns six times more than the av­er­age black fam­ily. In a coun­try where just less than 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is black, nine out of 10 South Africans be­low the poverty line are black.

That’s why some South Africans on both sides of the is­sue ar­gue the Rhodes statue is sim­ply a sym­bol.

“The statue is a sym­bolic form of dis­crim­i­na­tion and if it stays, UCT will re­main un­trans­formed,” UCT re­searcher Zethu Matebeni ar­gued in lo­cal me­dia. “It con­trib­utes to the in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture that makes UCT un­trans­formed.”

But the fed­eral chair­man of the op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Al­liance, Wilmot James, ar­gued in a state­ment the uni­ver­sity should ac­knowl­edge its his­tory by keep­ing the statue.

“Why not build a statue of an­other fig­ure that en­gages Rhodes in per­pet­ual con­ver­sa­tion?” he wrote. “This would sym­bol­ise the dia­logue and re­flec­tion that must hap­pen in each gen­er­a­tion, not in the ab­sence of the past, but pre­cisely be­cause of it. Right­eous­ness is not the sole pre­serve of some; nei­ther is moral­ity the pos­ses­sion of the vic­tors or rulers of the day.”

He also voiced a rare note of sup­port for Mr Rhodes, who founded the well-known Rhodes Schol­ar­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford, a pro­gramme en­joyed by many African lu­mi­nar­ies and for­mer US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton.

“Ce­cil John Rhodes did aw­ful things as part of his colo­nial project. But through for­ward think­ing by later gen­er­a­tions good was able to come, specif­i­cally in the area of ed­u­ca­tion,” he said.

What would Mr Rhodes think of his re­jec­tion by mod­ern South Africans?

One won­ders if he would care; af­ter all, this is the man who fa­mously said, “Re­mem­ber that you are an English­man, and have con­se­quently won first prize in the lot­tery of life.” — VOA

A stu­dent takes pic­tures of a statue of Ce­cil John Rhodes wrapped in plas­tic bags as part of a protest at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town.

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