Racism at Rhodes, Cecil's statue at UCT

I completed my undergraduate studies at Rhodes University five years ago, before I transferred to University of Cape Town (UCT) to pursue my Honours degree in Information Systems. I must admit, I owe these two institutions prodigious gratitude. Without the support I received from the academic staff, my fellow school mates, the administration, I probably wouldn’t have received the first-class qualifications I have today.

But the recent developments surrounding the alleged racism at Rhodes University, and the demands by a group of students at the University of Cape Town for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in campus leave me disappointed.

I, like most undergraduate students, arrived at Rhodes University aged 18. I was a shy young boy, bred in a township and had no experience of living in a diverse environment as that of Rhodes at the time. For me Rhodes was a much bigger transition; that required me to, along with other first-year students, learn to speedily adapt in an environment full of life, academic activities and so much more.

I wouldn’t accuse the university’s administration of racism. I never felt discriminated against by the institution. The Rhodes’s mission is to be the leading research and academic institution; that they did well at the time I was there. We all received what we had come for in Grahamstown – decent education – and in my eyes we were all given equal opportunity to succeed in classroom.

But I’d be oblivious not to point out that there were times I felt discriminated against by my fellow white mates. I did, at least once, felt a victim of racism. There were individuals who were racist – “individual racism”. Due to my introverted character, I didn’t have guts to stand up and publicly denounce these people’s mean acts. And in retrospect, I didn’t have to.

Going around the campus denouncing “individual racism” would have been a futile exercise. Certainly an unnecessary one – that would infringe people’s freedom. You see, there are racist people all over the world. And unfortunately there isn’t much we can do to change them – we can’t change them by force. My colleague, Martin van Staden, once said that racism is an “interpersonal issue”, I couldn’t agree more.

We all have a right to freedom of association; we all, have a right to free speech – be it on religion, sexual orientation or race. Blacks have a right to disassociate themselves from Whites, while Whites equally have a right to shy away from Blacks. I as an individual have a right to discriminate in whatever way I want. In fact, discrimination is part of our daily lives.

For example, to be with the girlfriend you are with, you had to discriminate against other women; when you chose the university you went to, you discriminated against other institutions of higher learning; when you chose to buy a Volkswagen as your first car, you discriminated against Toyota, Opel, Renault and other brands; I could go on endlessly. This is what liberty is.

But it’s also very important to mention that all races have a right to associate themselves with each other – which I recommend.

A former Rhodes University student who recently wrote “it’s quite amusing how white kids at Rhodes never want to talk about “race” related issues [sic] because we have “bigger” issues to worry about . . . Rhodes reeks of white privilege and it’s disgusting and appalling. black people can & do exist without white(ness).” on Rhodes University Student Representative Council’s Facebook page crossed the line in my opinion.

She further said “I just got tired of white – and a few black – people constantly telling us to forget the past, to move on and to get over it and that’s what prompted me to put up the post,”.

This woman needs to understand something, not all of us are eager to talk about race; not all of us, are eager to talk about the past. And we have a right not to. If she enjoys talking about race then she can start a group with those interested in the subject, nothing is wrong with that – it’s a free society. They can engage one another as long as they don’t abuse freedoms of those who are not interested.

Going around hounding Whites and “a few black”, as she puts it, strikes me as sheer ignorance and disrespect. She can create her Facebook page and post about the issues of race, those interested will “voluntarily participate” in the discussion. None of us (Black or White) are obligated to talk about race, so she shouldn’t presume so. I have no idea where this woman gets these myopic, paternalistic views she possesses.

What Rhodes University needs to do, as an institution, is to ensure that it applies its rules and regulations effectively. It must provide decent education to all students, of every race or nationality, who come to learn – whether students discriminate against one another during the course of their studies is their business as individuals – but in the process they should not deny each other the opportunity to learn, be it in the classroom or on the sports field. 

If there are any who deny others the opportunity to learn, then the university must punish them proportionally.

Let me say again that I sometimes felt discriminated against too. Even today at the place of work and in public, I still meet people whom I believe are racist. I’m sure Whites have met Blacks who are racist too. These are horrible people, but unfortunately there isn’t much anybody can do against them, because they have a right to freedom of association, and so do we. Government has no duty to legislate morality, the moment it takes that route, liberty is violated.

People who discriminated against me were fellow school mates, it wasn’t Rhodes University’s staff who were the people I needed the most at the time. So maybe it’s good that I kept quiet instead of starting an anti-racism movement whose mission is to disrupt learning in campus, or go around hounding Whites telling them how to exercise their freedom of association.

By these comments I do not mean we don’t have to do anything about racism; of course we can do something. We as individuals can start groups with those interested and engage one another. But in whatever we do, we must always respect personal freedoms of those who are not interested in the matter.


It’s a very important question. I think we shouldn’t forget that Cecil Rhodes was a bad man. We all know that. His record in Africa is disappointing. In many countries the statue would have been removed during the transition into democracy. I do not know why South Africans kept it. It was probably done in the name of reconciliation. So the question is: Was that the right thing to do?

For the purposes of symbolism, as the nation reconciled, in my opinion, it was the right thing to do. We didn’t only keep Cecil Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town, we also kept the statues of leaders who oppressed and brutalized Blacks for decades.

The Union Buildings which was used by the apartheid governments to strategize and ratify laws rigged against Blacks is still being used by our current government. Many names of the roads, cities and buildings never changed.

Doing the opposite would be of no benefit. We’ve seen the destruction of statues in many countries during political transitions around the world; many of these countries are today worst off. Political stability is out of reach, personal freedoms have been repressed, and there’s no free press. Not that they won’t rebound, they will, but it will unnecessarily take a while.

So what about people like us who believe these roads, statues, buildings and cities names must remain in place to remind us what it took to get where we are today? Should the statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed because a group of students who happen to disapprove of its existence demand so?

Not everybody wants the statue to be removed, for various reasons. Even when you do the polling today, you find that many people, including me, suggest that the statue remain in campus.

To come to an optimal, fair solution, is not easy because UCT is a public institution. If it were private, then there would be no negotiations, the owner would decide on his own what to do with the statue. Those unhappy with the owner’s decision to keep the statue would leave the campus at their own choice. But the government ownership of the university makes the situation very difficult because we all in a way pay for the university’s survival through taxes. We all own it. So perhaps those calling for the removal of the statue have a right to do so.

Or maybe they don’t, they have to compromise, because remember, the University of Cape Town is not only about Rhodes’s statue, there are many other things you find there. There are trees, buildings, rocks, the Table Mountain, sports stadiums and so much more the students can enjoy. So those who dislike the statue don’t have to pass near it. They can just shy away from it and enjoy other surroundings of the university, while those interested can watch the statue with pleasure. I think that would be fair, because we all pay, so let’s all get some satisfaction out of the campus.

You will note in my arguments that I’m a champion of liberty. Thanks to the legendary American economist from University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, who shaped my thinking. The solution to the problems the two universities face is personal freedom. But it’s going to be difficult for people to embrace the ideas I propose if they have no understanding of liberty – and most South Africans are not familiar with the concept.

The woman who posted this hawkish statement against “whites” and “a few black” needs to understand none of us are obligated to talk about race, until she familiarizes herself with the understanding of liberty, this won’t be the case – she, along with millions of South Africans, will continue attacking other people’s freedom.

I believe the statue of Cecil Rhodes should not be removed at my alma mater, University of Cape Town. Those who disapprove of its existence may shy away from it, while those interested may watch with pleasure. Given the circumstances, it’s the fairest approach we have to think about.

This article was first published at policydebates.wordpress.com

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