The Fall of Cecil Rhodes’ Statue at the University of Cape Town: Sign of a new Era
The black students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have for some weeks now demanded that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, prominently placed on upper campus on the slopes of Table Mountain, be taken away forthwith. What is at stake is far more than getting rid of an irritable, anomalous memorial reminding one of a hopelessly irrelevant past. The demand put forward by the black students at UCT is far more than that. It signals the arrival of a new era.
When Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2007, he said two things in his farewell speech, both of which astounded me. First he reminded all that Britain arguably has the most democratic and best political system ever seen in any country. Secondly, he also said that a British citizen could only be proud of her history. I was taken aback. Could a political leader, albeit addressing his words to his own people, tell such blatant lies?
One of the most prominent servants of the British Empire, in the indefatigable striving for its extension, was no doubt Cecil John Rhodes; a business man and a politician, all in one, but in that order. Having enriched himself enormously at the diamond mines in Kimberley, he was in fact able to purchase land further north in Africa, an area that subsequently became known as Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe). He was not a stranger to forced labour and forced removals of local people. The supremacy of white people, and in particular British people, was taken for granted. Further details of the history of Rhodes could easily be found elsewhere, but perhaps a sentence now engraved above another statue of Rhodes at the so-called Rhodes Memorial, a little higher up along the eastern slopes of Table Mountain (or rather Devil’s Peak), would well summarize the hubris that went with a person such as him, in all respects larger than life. It is a stanza from the 1902 poem written by Rudyard Kipling, thus honouring Rhodes who died only 49 years old:
The immense and brooding spirit still
Shall quicken and control
Living he was the land, and dead
His soul shall be her soul!
This verse is engraved on the Rhodes Memorial in Rondebosch, Cape Town. It is about time that we try to make sense of what it says. It may be about a poetic hyperbole, but that alone cannot condone the suggestion that African soil is for ever connected to the soul of Rhodes! Such hyperbole would conflict with African consciousness of the living-dead as well as Christian convictions regarding ownership: only God, the Creator, is the rightful owner, while humans may be stewards for a life span only. Perhaps before Zimbabwe can become Zimbabwe, its land has to be exorcised from a soul the owner of whom was the unlawful and wrongful proprietor.
I am today bold enough to say that we are entering a new era when it comes to the liberation process in South Africa, but also elsewhere. This is so in two senses. First, South Africa has had to contend with the legacy of Afrikanerdom, which is largely the political oppression that blacks had to endure from 1948 – 1990 (1994), and in a less legalized form hundreds of years before that. Now a second phase kicks in, and that has to do with the colonial aspect of this oppression, or in other words, the British empirical contribution (including British and other Western capital) to this oppression is now going to be laid bare; thank Rhodes at UCT for that.
Secondly, the process towards justice and reconciliation that is the hallmark of Nelson Mandela and others within the ANC (and many others, churches, civil society etc.) during the first twenty years of freedom (1994 – 2014), is most likely coming to an end. Three factors here coincide. First, weak (and corrupt) leadership from the side of the ANC; second, a renewed awareness from younger blacks that things need to be taken to a more fundamental level; the reaction of the students at UCT is but one such sign. And third, a remaining, and strikingly (and yet with some clear exceptions) intransigent and almost insolent attitude among whites, who think that enough is enough, no more change is needed.
On Maundy Thursday afternoon Dr Fanie du Toit, the Director of Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, was interviewed on Radio SAFM with reference to the student action at UCT “Rhodes must fall”. He also said that we are now entering a new era, exemplified by the student action. There is a need to take a hard look at the lack of transformation in South African society. But he also contended that a very good foundation had been laid through the work of the first democratic government and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as civil society. In the end, he said, we will be able to reach a deeper kind of reconciliation, but he repeated “the foundation for this is laid”. It remains to be seen if this is so.
On 26 March the Centre for Conflict Research, CCR, had an open discussion at the Centre for the Book on the theme “Debating the Legacy of Cecil Rhodes”. Three speakers made introductions: Professor Paul Maylam, Professor Chris Landsberg and Dr Adekeye Adebajo. On the right side of the hall about twenty UCT-students held up banners referring to the Rhodes must fall campaign. This in-house demonstration was apparently agreed upon by the organisers on before-hand. The evening was a reminder of three things: the vast majority of those present in a hall packed to capacity demanded that the Rhodes statue must go, student power is still to be reckoned with, and little respect was paid to previous leadership in the country, including that of Nelson Mandela.
My belief is that this evening was a defining moment of this in-breaking new era. What it all entails should not be elaborated on here. Suffice it to be mentioned that the students will quickly move on to discuss other things like the curricula that they are exposed to and which, in their opinion, is almost totally Eurocentric. This discussion has already started on all campuses of previously white, English speaking universities. At the other end a renewed discussion on the plight of the majority of blacks who still live in abject poverty will inevitably take place. The current ANC government has here a lot to answer for.
Instead of referring to the legacy of Mandela and the early leadership as a way to deal with the need for a continued transformation, for the first time (as I have heard it in public discourse in South Africa) Mandela was repeatedly critiqued in the meeting, especially for one thing: that he (and Professor Jakes Gerwel, former Vice-Chancellor of UWC, at the time head of Mandela’s presidency) had gone out of their way to form the The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, (a scholarship foundation for building exceptional leadership in Africa). Perhaps this is the most striking sign to be seen this night: you cannot possibly rely on old authorities any longer, not even Mandela; something new has to be sought.
One therefore cannot help but comment on Chris Chivers’ (worked as a priest at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, but now based in Britain) article in the Cape Times (31 March). His point of departure is just Mandela and his comment when he was shown around in Westminster Abbey in London and it was inevitable to make a comment on some figures in the gallery who had acted on the South African scene: Cecil Rhodes, Lord Milner etc. Mandela’s words that “these memorials must never be removed”, but that they should remain so that one is reminded not to make the same mistakes again Chivers applies to the current situation at UCT.
It seems history has already passed the point where Chivers finds himself. One should recall that black students at UCT have had to walk past this statue of Rhodes on a daily basis, prominently placed below the main stairs of upper campus. Why should they put up with this? As I have said we are already entering an era where Mandela no longer is the ultimate authority. He can only help in parts. Something else is needed. More and more it will become evident that the “icon” (a word that is abused and which Mandela never asked for) Mandela had flaws that must be identified. This work has now begun. But what is perhaps most significant is that we here are dealing with two perspectives, one from above, the other from below. It goes without saying that the black student passing this arch-imperialist and arch-capitalist Rhodes every morning on his way to a lecture that is offered by a white lecturer with a British accent is bound to experience this from below. It is a struggle for liberation and a struggle for not being choked by these oppressive images. Westminster Abbey can still afford these statues, they may remind you of a past that is filled with cruelty (but to some like Tony Blair it remains a glorious past, to be immensely proud of). To the British the Westminster Abbey pantheon is and remains a from-above-perspective.
As to add weight to my contention that we now are entering a new era in South Africa I want to add what the present Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said in his sermon at the Easter Night Vigil in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town:
“If there was ever a day in the past 21 years that South Africa needed to be saved from ourselves, it is this Easter. If there ever was a day in the past 21 years that South Africans needed to choose a new path, it is this Easter. And if there ever was a time that we needed to say to our leaders, we’ll give you a second chance, but then give us the leadership to help South Africa achieve its unique potential and its great destiny, it is this Easter…
“Today, South Africa has a moment in history to redefine its second chance for redemption, to redefine the meaning of transformation… Our second chance is to be part of something bigger than ourselves, the opportunity to end the inequalities that have washed over our country unlike any flood of inhumanity that has historically drowned a country. The New Struggle is a new transformation. It is a fight against inequalities that shouldn’t exist. It is a growing national momentum towards ending the inequality of opportunity.” (See also the Sunday Independent, April 05 2015)
This, if anything, tells us that the ultimate inspiration for renewal, for transformation, in the whole world, but also in a country like South Africa, may be rooted in theology, based on faith convictions about the reality of the Resurrection of Christ. The church may provide this inspiration, just like Archbishop Makgoba now did, not in terms of coercive power but as a servant.