The fuss of Cecil Rhodes and imperialism

2015-03-23 13:55

Cecil Rhodes was a man whose depravity knows no bounds. His racism and utter contempt of non-whites, as well as non- British people in general is never doubted. He is famously known to have said in parliament; “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.” In other words, to hell with democracy when it comes to the rightful owners of the land, because as he allegedly said “I prefer land to niggers”. The question is; is that enough to attempt to erase him from our history?

I’m a great fan of iNkos’ uShaka Zulu. However, one can only describe as evil his intentions to sodomize the entire Southern African region, through bloodshed and war. I suspect that had uShaka not been murdered when he was, South Africa would have only one official language. The legends told to me as a child about the “activities of uShaka” struck terror in me. The practices he employed to dominate his people, how “he murdered all the short men”, how he destroyed cultural practices such as male circumcision because “manhood must be proven at the battle field”, how he enforced national mourning at the loss of his mother with unspeakable brutality (where he was rumoured to have had people impaled). In fact I was often pacified into obedience through calm reminders that “uShaka does not like children who disobey their parents”. History, however, tells us that he built a nation from a few dispersed tribes through conquest and clever political manoeuvring. His military tactics as used by his nephew iNkos’ uCetshwayo, three decades later provided the only instance of defeat for the British Empire at the hands of a “native tribe”. Do we consider him great? Yes, of course (we have named many things after him, and made statues in his honour). But, he killed and massacred and destroyed people. So what?

Today, we refer to Alexander (that butcher from Macedonia) as “The Great”. In China Premier Mao Tse-tung, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China is an icon. Yet, enough people died in his experiments to wipe out civilisations. What is it that makes these figures “great”? Our judgement of greatness is often blind to immediate moral or ethical consequences at the time, but rather focuses on the effect on accumulated history that individuals have (or the point of view of the author), so that Napoleon was bad to non - French people, while being singularly one of the greatest French leaders not because of conquest alone, but because of the disciplined public administration that he left behind. Similarly, to me uShaka Zulu is great not only because of military genius but because he is the founder of the nation I belong to. In other words, great leadership shapes history, but great leaders like everyone else have flaws in their characters. One cannot view any human being through monochrome lenses, the same applies to these leaders. uShaka Zulu was no less an imperialist as Napoleon, Alexander (A.K.A. Mr The Great) and Cecil Rhodes. The only difference between them was circumstance.

The legacy of Cecil Rhodes includes two of our countries most recognisable institutions of higher education. The number of South African Rhodes Scholars alone sits in the hundreds, many of whom are exceptional black Southern Africans. The DeBeers Mining Company that Cecil founded, which is often accused of many conspiracies, is an amazing legacy for South Africans and in particular the people of Botswana and Namibia. Those are good things that Cecil left behind. While Cecil isn’t my hero personally, there are many South Africans who, because of their heritage, may look up to him as a shining light. Should my heroes as a black South African take precedent over other racial groups? No. Imperialist agendas were not the preserve of white colonialists.

As a non-homogeneous nation we cannot expect that our nation’s heroes would be to everyone’s liking. There are many who do not agree with awarding uShaka special place in history. That is understandable, but no one denies that he had a particular impact on today’s society. The same with Cecil. We will not become an inclusive society if we cannot accept our collective history and its figures as our own; all of us. My argument is that we are running the risk of alienating non-black African heritage because of the associations with colonialism and apartheid. We need to move beyond race and “them versus us” mentality. This is OUR history, and Cecil Rhodes is a part of it.

*** The act of removing the statue is of little consequence in itself. The issue is about the intention behind it. If our intention as the majority of this country is to blot out significant events of our history and the personalities behind them, then doomed we are. If the intention is to simply enact the democratic rights of the student population of one of our great institutions, then so be it.

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