I’ve been engaging in the most delightful (not!) debates (and observing others) on Facebook about the current debacle raging in Cape Town and Grahamstown. Briefly, students at the University of Cape Town are demanding that a statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands large and dominant overlooking the playing fields should be destroyed because he was an imperialist racist who abused black labour to enrich himself. The detractors of this request are claiming that he gave his land to the city and one of many things built on that land is the university itself, as well as a scholarship founded with his fortune. The protests have spread to Grahamstown where the students want the name of the university there changed from Rhodes University.
There’s a whole lot more to it of course and it’s complicated, as are most similar issues in South Africa, but it has raised a level of consciousness on certain topics that I think is welcome.
There’s white privilege (a concept that many who benefit from it refuse to acknowledge), there’s ignorance of history (usually a choice by those who prefer denial), there’s racism, there’s theft of land from indigenous people, there’s the after-effects of colonialism, and much more. But what is quite revealing is how issues like this serve to bring racists out of under the rocks where they rightly belong. The issue is, of course, more about transformation than a statue but ignorance of history makes people think that black people in South Africa should just be happy they finally have the vote and should all ‘move on and forget the past’. Never mind that the worst of the past is still in their faces, day in and day out, such as the statue in question. Here’s a summary of the events of the past 3 weeks (with a photo of the UCT statue shrouded by students) and here are some quotes that show what a monster he was.
My favourite comment is this (from Africa is a Country):
“In calling for the statue to be removed then, activists are not only addressing the hidden divisions of labour that sustain academia on the backs of black bodies, they are critiquing the raced, classed an[d] gendered dimensions that shape access to education in South African society. Challenging whiteness at UCT is not to suggest that individual students are to blame for the absence of transformation, but to point out that millions of black people in this country find themselves in a position where even gazing upon the statue of Rhodes is a remote possibility. It is to point out that economic inequality remains heavily racialized and gendered, and in order to transform our universities there needs to be a greater recognition of the structural violence that black people continue to endure as they send their children off to dilapidated schools in far flung rural areas with few employment opportunities once they finish. There is a long history of student occupations setting off a chain reaction of social protest. Throughout history students have acted as catalysts of struggle, as they often feel the impacts of economic and political change most acutely. In South African history, they have also been the ones willing to take the risks required to advance emancipatory struggles. “
And my favourite #hashtag comment is: ” #RhodesMustFall exists precisely because of the type of people who think it is a protest about a statue.” If you don’t understand that then you don’t understand much at all.
I personally don’t believe the statue should be destroyed. It should be moved elsewhere and used, with other symbols, to explain and place colonialism and racism in its appropriate context. This could in fact be a perfect opportunity to contextualise the issues. Cape Town does not have an apartheid museum (something I deplore constantly and find hard to explain to tourists who don’t have the opportunity to see the one in Johannesburg) but this could be the perfect starting point for something similar in this city.
I know some people don’t like it when I write about issues like this but that’s too bad. It’s a reality of our daily life in South Africa and avoiding/denying it is your choice, not mine.