Redressing Rhodes

2015-07-06 16:37

When Rhodes fell in South Africa it reverberated globally. His statue, gazing over a changed country, is a metaphor for modern-day South Africa. Even though the country’s transition was relatively bloodless, its change mostly peaceful, and its black majority theoretically free; the Rainbow Nation’s democratic achievements are fiercely contested. The inherited systemic inequality, made worse by current policy incompetence, means that race still determines political, social, and economic privilege. In a country with a racialised history like ours, it makes sense that remaining symbols of white dominance would be the target of revolutionary fervour.

The decision to remove the statue, and the tactics used to get rid of it, generated much debate in South Africa – and around the world. South Africa’s acute identity crisis was, for once, not a parochial obsession. Oxford, where Rhodes formed many of his colonial ideals and the place where a major Scholarship bears his name, was no different.

#RhodesMustFall Oxford launched with much fanfare in the city of dreaming spires. And in Oxford, the movement’s aims were not limited to statues. Like their southern counterpart, the movement aims to ‘decolonise’ the institution as a physical space and as a place of knowledge production and dissemination.

Related to this, a group of Rhodes Scholars who identify as ‘’Redress Rhodes’’ was started to address issues within the Rhodes Scholarship community. Although bearing similar aims to RMF, and even sharing members, they are entirely different. This subtle distinction is important: practically, RR is an internal Rhodes community lobbying mechanism; and, principally, some RR members are doubtful of RMF (as I am – see here, here, and here).

One of RR’s targets was the traditional (unqualified) toast to the Founder (Rhodes) at the leaving ‘Going Down Dinner’ that Rhodes House hosts every year. Many argued the toast praised him in his personal capacity. Scholars, particularly those elected by African constituencies, felt discomforted by this given that the pernicious effects of Rhodes’ legacy is a significant contributory factor to many of Africa’s present-day problems. The Warden of Rhodes House, having been presented with options from RR, dropped the toast. Instead, the Warden chose to amend the toast praising the Trust and the Scholars themselves. His logic, from what I understand, celebrates Rhodes' philanthropy and the positive impact his ill-gotten gains has had on the world, through the efforts of the Trust and the Scholars, denying him personal glory as a mark of disapproval for how his wealth was obtained.

One would imagine that, in an imperfect world, this was a reasonable compromise. But not for some. The Warden, and many others in the Rhodes community, have been subjected to sharp criticism for his decision. One such critic commented that this ''must be motivated by the need to associate with the demagoguery and mob rule of UCT.'' That criticism is fairly representative.

What many miss, though, is that while RR may have been inspired by events at Cape Town, it is certainly not affiliated with them. In their eagerness to suggest that a liberalism – or, rather – plurality of views is being snuffed out, critics have been rather deterministic themselves by failing to differentiate between, and understand, the many sites of opposition to the glorification of Rhodes. That is not to suggest that all their criticism is mistaken (see links) but, rather, to suggest that their attacks are slightly off the mark.

That the Rhodes community is moving towards being more inclusive and cognisant of its affiliation to Rhodes should be praised. As should the reasonableness shown by both sides in making moves toward achieving a critical, but fair, means of engaging. Traditions are good, but they are not immutable. They must be dynamic and amended to reflect the complexity of the community that should partake in them. And as the sites of obvious prejudice and bigotry are reduced in their number, we should be more – not less – willing to engage as other, less obvious, grounds for change are presented. This is symbolic and substantive change.

Debate (and disagreement) is a good thing. These will be fraught discussions, and some questionable decisions will be made   (inevitable when you are human). But, there are (legitimate) concerns (on both sides). And we will only be able to address them through being tolerant, fair, and reasonable. As RW Johnson pointed out – such changes are not unprecedented. The toast to the Chancellor of Germany was dropped in the 30s (when Hitler came to power) and the toast to the American President also went in the 60s (over the Vietnam War). Ironically, this point underscores RR's mission rather than Johnson's opposition: the toast is a dynamic tradition that is able to change when Scholars themselves motivate for it. The Founder is no different.

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