Airbrushing History: Debating Rhodes' Legacy

2015-03-17 13:53

As the debate raged in Cape Town over whether to remove the statue of the British Imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, I found myself in a grand house named after him some 6000 miles away. Rhodes House is the quaint Oxford-based headquarters of the Rhodes Scholarships. Named for and funded by Rhodes, the Scholarships are awarded annually to individuals from around the world – largely former British colonies – to pursue graduate study at the University of Oxford. Having won one of these last year, it did not escape me that while his legacy was being viscerally debated back home, abroad everything seemed okay.

But it isn’t. Rhodes’ legacy is one of the most devastating wounds inflicted upon the African continent. Through his relentless pursuit of wealth and power, people’s lives, freedom, and dignity were not spared. His ‘visionary’ project is, by-and-large, a significant cause of the many problems African countries, including my own, experience today. The patterns of development, urban migration, and their associated ills are not coincidental. It is the very basis upon which many systems of structural privilege, most notably white privilege, are contingent upon.

It is in this context that I choose to view the #RhodesMustFall debate that currently dominates UCT.

While many rightfully think that the form of protest is distasteful, to dwell on how it manifested – rather than why it did – misses the point. If this was, as it seems to be, a genuine attempt to highlight what a substantial constituency within UCT consider to be the institution’s lack of genuine engagement with issues of transformation, then, it stands to reason why protestors took as drastic action as they did. By targeting a visible symbol of white privilege – in as jarring a way as they could muster – protesters forced people to remove their blinkers, experience discomfort, and see them and their issues clearly. The literal stink is a pungent reminder of just how limited polite conversation can be when those with whom you are conversing are deliberately or inadvertently ignorant to the problem.

But, I don’t think the removal of the statue solves the problem. Logistical issues like cost and feasibility aside, I think that it threatens to distract us, as Toni Morrison cautioned on racism. That is not aimed to undermine or silence the protest, nor is it to ignore the idea of symbols being important for the sake of inclusivity. Rather, it is to urge a caution that if the statue alone is held to be the manifestation of privilege – rather than the systemic – I am afraid that it if the statue falls people will be lulled into a false sense of attainment. Their outrage – so targeted and direct – would have attained something and dissipate. Equally, white South Africans should not be allowed to think – as they may – that it all ends with a statue. It does not.

If anything, we need the statue there to remind us daily that the struggle is far from over. And even though it may pain us to look upon it perched on the mountain, it should stand to remind us we have a long way to go still.

And the legacies of some of the Senior Scholars, such as Bill Clinton, Kumi Naidoo, Edwin Cameron, Ngaire Woods, Amia Srinivasan and many more, should make us all realise that a dubious legacy does not shackle the hope for the future. The history of the Scholarship is peppered with glass-ceiling breakers, social justice champions, human rights advocates, and pioneering philanthropists. The best way to atone for his privilege – and reverse what he has done – is to use what he has left behind and direct it to something that would make him turn in his grave. I see no reason why UCT students should not make his legacy – and statue – their own and make it stand for something different.

The picture of Mandela seated and smiling next to a bust of Rhodes, which hangs in Milner Hall at Rhodes House, serves as a powerful lesson for me. We can get angry and seek bloody vengeance. It may be cathartic. It may make us feel good. But it’s nowhere near as good as looking an old enemy in the eye and realising that despite their best, you are still here. And there is nothing they can do to change that. It’s what I do every time I pass Rhodes’ bust or portrait. And one day I wish that every UCT student, particularly its black ones, can do the same.

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