Shortly before I arrived here in Cape Town, a group of students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) launched a protest movement called #RhodesMustFall, which was initially aimed at forcing the removal of a large statue of Cecil John Rhodes from UCT’s Upper Campus. This protest movement was just one of many over the years here at UCT and at other universities across the country aimed at removing images and statuary that are seen by many students to be enduring symbols of oppression, social injustice, and colonization.
First, who was Cecil J. Rhodes? Well, where do we even begin? According to his Wikipedia page, Rhodes was a “British businessman, mining magnate, and politician.” He was also an “ardent” believer in British colonialism. You may know him from the fact that he had an entire African colony named after himself, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). You may know him as the founder of the internationally recognized De Beers diamond company (now famous for its monopolistic practices and for trading in blood diamonds). Or you may have heard of him for being the architect of the illustrious Rhodes Scholarship.
Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better. –Cecil J. Rhodes
According to historian Richard MacFarlane, the history of Rhodes’ involvement on the African continent can be “divided into two broad categories: chauvinistic approval or utter vilification.” For most people I’ve spoken to since arriving, they seem to fall squarely into the latter category. It seems as if Rhodes is the archetype villain. For many UCT students, it is as if he represents every negative thought and emotion still linked to colonization…. and he is everywhere! Rhodes provided the very land on which UCT was built. The Memorial he had commissioned to honor himself stands directly above the campus. From its lofty steps you can survey his “kingdom”. Whether you are on UCTs campus or wandering around downtown Cape Town, you cannot escape the name or, in many cases, the very visage of Rhodes. Here are just some of the photos I’ve taken in the few short weeks I’ve been in Cape Town.
So why do UCT students see Cecil J. Rhodes as the embodiment of colonialism? Well, let’s just take a quick look at one passage from his last will and testament where he mentions the British people: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”
Reading this, is it so hard to understand why UCT students–regardless of race–might find it difficult–if not morally impossible–to appreciate the influence of Rhodes and his lifetime of work shaping modern southern Africa? For them, to promote a man who believed so ardently in the subjugation of races, a man who saw them as “despicable specimens”, is unconscionable. And can you blame them? Even the Vice Chancellor of UCT, Max Price, found common ground with the students, admitting in an interview that while Rhodes was considered a “great man” and a “great politician”, the attitudes and means he used “were not right.” Price concluded, “He was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.” After weeks of protesting, the University voted in April to remove the statue and the vote PASSED! The next day at 5pm, the statue was removed. Watch the video here:
HOWEVER, removing the statue of Rhodes is only the beginning of a conversation that–in the minds of many African students on UCTs campus–has never taken place. What the removal of this statue will hopefully spark is an honest, open conversation about how the very structure of the UCT system promotes social inequality, injustice, and enduring colonialism. Watch the video below to hear the opinions of some UCT students about why it is so important that the statue come down, but ALSO why it is vital that the #RhodesMustFall movement should continue to move the conversation on issues like South Africa’s enduring colonial past and UCT’s entrenched system of inequality. Finally, the conversation must focus on where UCT as a community can go from here to promote an institution that is free and equal:
What do YOU think about Rhodes colonial legacy and the removal of the Rhodes statue from UCT’s campus? Leave a reply below!