There’s been a lot of debate and general noise involving my alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT), over the past two weeks concerning whether a statue of Cecil John Rhodes should remain in prominent view (despite his pillaging, plundering past as a coloniser) or whether it should be taken down to acknowledge the error of his legacy.
For the five years I was at UCT I honestly remember paying that particular statue very little attention. The times it did catch my eye usually occurred because one of the male residences’ decided to paint it a different colour as a prank or when I would use it as a meeting spot with friends, after lectures, before heading down to Lower Campus.
I have no recollection whatsoever of gazing up at it and thinking “Cecil, you little shit”. If anything, I was quite unmoved by its entire existence. Granted, I was in my early 20’s and my priorities at that time didn’t include being a social activist or cultivating a level of black consciousness – that came a little bit later in life.
However, in light of recent developments calling for the statue to be taken down I find myself in two minds about the whole ordeal..
My argument in support of #RhodesMustFall
I’ve never understood how or why post-independent South Africa didn’t do a more thorough job eliminating the evidence and remnants that speak to a past that encouraged the oppression and belittling of an entire race of its indigenous people. It wasn’t good enough that South Africa only got a new flag, and a black government/political part ruling. In my humble opinion, they should have gone the full hog and:
- Renamed the entire country: After all, South Africa is literally a location – Mzansi sounds so much better.
- Renamed all street names that commemorated the architects and preservers of apartheid: Jan Smuts and Louis Botha anyone?
- Pulled down all the statues of pro-apartheid individuals and sent them to Orania, as one person I was chatting with this past weekend cheekily suggested.
My point is that this should be done as soon as the ink was drying on the Independence Declaration Certificate (or whatever the equivalent was then). This would have sent a clear message that all attitudes and sentiments that supported the belief that apartheid or colonisation was something to be proud of, applauded or immortalised had it very wrong. In short, Rhodes’ statue should have been taken down 20 years ago, so better late than never.
Additional Points to Ponder:
- Are visual reminders the best way to preserve the memory of an individual – whether they are the heroes or villains of our history?
- Is taking a statue down enough? Does more need to be done to eradicate or discredit the living memories of these villains of our history?
- Could the narration of the Red & Blue City Bus Tours in Cape Town not focus on Cecil John Rhodes?! Seriously, there’s history and then there’s the incessant promotion of one rather unpopular man #RantOver.
My argument against #RhodesMustFall
There are plenty of social issues and inconsistencies that plague my alma mater like, the high rate of academic exclusion of black South African students, the dubious racial allocation of students to specific residence’s and the ever increasing costs of tuition. Honestly, it would make more sense to me to get answers and solutions to any one of these issues before the thought of having Cecil John Rhodes’ statue taken down would have had time to cross my mind. I wish the other more serious tertiary concerns got as much airplay as this #RhodesMustFall issue has received.
Then I think to myself, “There’s a reason why Rhodes has a statue up there. He’s the one who pledged that dubiously acquired land, in his will, to be used for a tertiary institution. He’s the reason UCT exists and that must mean something, right?” Does Rhodes being a strong patron of Education within Southern Africa diminish his shady, sinister and oppressive exploits as a coloniser of South Africa? No, it doesn’t. But does it mean we must forget that he made this generous contribution either? No, it does not. If it’s already taken people a whole +20 years (post-Apartheid) to take it down, having it stay up there is neither going to improve upon Cecil John Rhodes’ greatly diminished reputational capital.
I would almost go as far as to say that leaving his statue up there could serve as a timely reminder to everyone who sees it that no matter how much good you may have done, it will never eclipse the fact that your actions denied millions of people basic human rights and dignity.
Taking the statue down won’t change his or our history. Keeping the statue up will encourage some scintillating discourse (like so) regarding one man’s corrosive involvement within our collective histories, here in Southern Africa.
Additional Points to Ponder:
- Seriously though UCT, can we address those other key social issues that are rife within your hallowed halls like chop-chop?
- Errrr, how much exactly would it cost to take that statue down? I would love to know the answer to that.
I would love to hear YOUR views, opinions and/or arguments
say your peace in the comments.
Long response ahead – sorry!
I devoted my master’s thesis to South Africa’s post-apartheid cultural heritage policy, and the inevitable heritage dissonance that is present in a country that is not only very diverse but also dealing with an extremely painful past. (My thesis committee chair was actually a UCT heritage prof and dean.)
South Africa’s cultural heritage law, the National Heritage Resources Act (passed in 1999), is one of the world’s most sophisticated heritage policies, solidly-written, inclusive, and based on sound concepts. The preamble of the NHRA states that it should manage the nation’s heritage in a way that “facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution and…promotes new and previously neglected research into our rich oral traditions and customs.”
The policy is a true reflection of the intentions of democratic South Africa’s founders – which was the establishment of a non-racial democracy where everyone has value, even the former oppressors. The post-apartheid government’s transformation goals specifically included accommodating those who were deposed, and treatment of heritage was intended to provide an avenue for sustained debate about democracy, even if that meant leaving the “difficult heritage” intact. — This can be VERY hard for some to understand today without knowing the historic context of SA’s transition to democracy.
I spent quite a bit of time considering the contentious retention of pre-democracy monuments and historic sites (the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria in particular.) I concluded that the inherent conflict over the continued presence of these heritage places should be considered positively, as an important contribution to the debate that is necessary to build a truly democratic nation. I agree with South African historian Gary Baines, who admonishes: “we should accept and even welcome conflicting and competing memories as an inevitable part of the transition to democracy.”
So this is what I think: don’t tear the Cecil Rhodes statue down. Move it if they want, but be sure to interpret it within its historic and the current context. Heck, even build a counter-monument (this has been done all over SA – like Freedom Park near the Voortrekker Monument & Blood River Monument and the nearby Ncome.) Whatever they do, it should be used as an opportunity to help South Africans continue to move toward the non-racial democracy that the nation’s founders intended. As Jonathan Jansen (Rector at University of Free State) recently said, “There is nothing more dangerous on a university campus than political consciousness without historical content.”
Lastly, South Africa is hardly the only place that is trying to figure out how to deal with difficult heritage – Germany, Spain, Cambodia, etc.) There’s an entire area of heritage studies and coalitions of sites around the world that are trying to figure this out.
Anyway, I could write forever on this topic (in fact, I wrote a couple hundred pages on it) but I’ve written far too much already. If you’re interested, I’d gladly share my thesis with you.
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Mel, your comment blew me away. Detail , knowledge and overlooked insight is always welcome on here and your comment delivered all 3.
1. Thanks for alerting me to the existence of the National Heritage Resources Act. It’s heartening to know that such policy was created and exists. And disheartening that this is the first time I’m hearing mention of it. Nothing else I’ve read on the debate mentions the act.
2. I like your mention of “difficult heritage”. As much as I agree and understand historian Gary Baines’ rose-coloured sentiment in “welcoming competing and conflicting memories” the harsh reality is some reminders invoke memories that people are unwiling to revisit or would rather forget.
3. I love that you quoted Prof Jansen (that man is a trailblazer when it comes to progressive dialogue around race relations, Education and political conciousness in South Africa). Context usually gets thrown out of the window in favour of Emotion in cases like this. Both instances have a place in such a debate but as we have already seen, rarely are they given equal weighting.
Please do send your thesis through, as I would love to understand more around what has been done in the past to “successfully” preserve or commemorate or eradicate historical sites around the world.
Thanks for schooling me and anyone else who happens upon your comment, Mel ☺