The protest prompted furious discussion across the country as to history’s place in the present, with the dean of UCT finally announcing yesterday that the removal of the statue had been approved by senior leadership.
“UCT is an argumentative university. This is an abiding strength and undoubtedly, the students are leading a national debate,” he said.
Rhodes was born in 1853 and went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest men and the premier of Cape Colony in 1890. But he is also responsible for the beginnings of enforced racial segregation policies in South Africa, with his early drafting of the Natives Land Act which later came into effect in 1913.
Upon his death in 1902 Rhodes donated his fortune to setting up UCT, now ranked one of the best universities in the country. Aware of this history, protesters called for the statue’s removal from the centre of the campus with a well-organised #Rhodesmustfall campaign, arguing that the institution should become “more African”. Some even called for his remains to be exhumed and sent back to the UK.
South Africa does indeed have a responsibility to redress previous atrocities and injustices, but does this have to be done in a way that edits and distorts history?
Protesters have said the statue stands for white supremacy, racism, imperialism, and the oppression of the black African majority. Discontent spread to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, too.
A student representative, Siyanda Makhubo, told the South African press that the name of the Grahamstown university needed to be changed: “Rhodes is a symbol of our past. But it looks like the university is not committed and not ready for transformation,” Makhubo said.
These views of Rhodes’ history are legitimate, as much of his wealth was acquired by despicable methods that often involved forcefully evicting African people from their land.
Dr Max Price, vice chancellor of UCT, summed up the contradictions by saying that although Rhodes was considered a “great man” and “great politician” the attitudes and means he used “were not right”.
“He was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain,” Price told CityPress.
For many students, the statue is not just a simple reminder of Rhodes’ former power. It’s as much a symbol of his dubious past as his financial donation, and highlights South Africa’s problematic history – something we shouldn’t hide from.
But as a black UCT alumnus who walked past that statue for four years, I think Rhodes should be left exactly where he is. Removing him omits an essential part of the institution’s history that has contributed to everything good, bad and ugly about it – and arguably the country too.
UCT is no different to the majority of South African institutions that were established before the first democratic election in 1994. All of them have inherited problems from previous regimes and all of them inadequately reflect the demographic profile of the country.
In light of yesterday’s announcement, we must ask: where do we draw the line when editing the history and figures who have played an influential role in South Africa’s narrative? Who decides – and how – on what stays and what goes?
A good example is that of Shaka Zulu, a significant figure in South Africa’s past who advanced the Zulu kingdom by violently obliterating and dispossessing many neighbouring Xhosa, Sotho and Swati people of their land.
As a Xhosa person flying through an airport named in his honour – the King Shaka International Airport near Durban – this presents a similar dilemma. But this doesn’t mean I think his place in history be edited out.
The same is true of Rhodes, and applies to other contentious monuments such as The Castle of Good Hope and the Voortrekker Monument. Removing these symbols of the past does not change the future.
So while I believe the statue should stay, what should not go unaddressed are the real issues that have arisen at UCT thanks to its legacy.
These include little or no focus on African philosophies and perspectives, a student body that doesn’t adequately reflect the country’s demographic profile and a predominance of white male academics.
The same amount of energy that has been used to campaign for #Rhodesmustfall should be put into championing faster transformation. We should be fighting for a more just and sound education system, better access to student funding and the building of more universities promised by the government.
These campaigns can lead to real change – not the removal of a statue.” – Siya Mnyanda
Siya Mnyanda is a politics and philosophy major from the University of Cape Town and currently works in the private sector