Friday, 20 March 2015 00:00

Why Rhodes Statue Must Fall

There are conflicting views about how Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy should be evaluated. The proximate issue in the current debate raging at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is whether the statue of a figure as divisive as Rhodes should continue to form the centrepiece of that university twenty years after democracy. The deeper issue concerns the nature of the institutional culture.


Rhodes came to South Africa as a young boy of 17, suffering from tuberculosis. Defying his doctor’s prognosis that his death was imminent, he quickly established himself as a mining magnate during the gilded age in Kimberly.


Not content with just being a mining magnate, he sought a seat in parliament and experienced a meteoric rise to become the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, a passage that some suggested was greased through bribes in his Griqualand West constituency. Rhodes would later cap his success by convincing the British monarch to give him authority to act like a sub-state, with unfettered authority to colonise parts of the African using a special Charter Company.


Rhodes was driven by the grand idea of enlarging the footprint of the British Empire. As he put it, he set himself out to work “for the bringing of the whole civilized world under British rule…for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into one Empire.”

His initiatives as Prime Minister included sponsoring the infamous Bill colloquially known as “Every Master Wallop His Nigger Bill”, granting right to Cape Dutch farmers to flog their black workers. In his words: “We must treat them [natives] as subject race and be lords over them.” He considered natives as appendages in the production process.


As a member of parliament he fought against giving blacks title deeds in urban areas. According to Lewis Mitchell his biographer, Rhodes asserted: “Now I come to the question of Title. My idea is that the natives should be in Reserves and not mix up with the white man.” In a sense, he laid the foundations for the apartheid economic geography and spatial inequalities that exist to this day.


The protest by a section of UCT students against Rhodes statue is valid. First universities are fountains of critical thought, and have no business in hoisting in their centre courts statues of political figures. These belong to the museum. Further, it is not just the statue that is problematic but the ideas Rhodes stood for which are subtly embedded in the institutional culture.  


Rhodes believed till his death in Anglo-Saxon dominance across the domains of culture, politics and ideas, using the instruments of dispossession and dominance. His philanthropic gestures, including establishing a “Colonial Scholarship”, donating vast tracts of his residency for the establishment of UCT, and giving his main Groote Schuur residence to be used by future presidents, should be regarded as proceeds of plunder. His was a selfish attempt to atone for his earthly sins in order to escape judgment beyond the grave. He was bribing the future to regard him kindly.


Changing institutional culture entails more than removing the statue of Rhodes. There is a need for self-awareness of the discourses that have over time shaped the evolution of historically white universities, especially the idea that there is only one view of cultural progress and intellectual expressions. Deliberations on institutional culture should strive to create vibrant intellectual and social spaces that affirm plurality of ideas and cultural diversity.


University leadership should do much more to attract, develop, and retain black talent in their teaching staff. Many white students go through university life without ever encountering black authority figures of knowledge. It also does not help the confidence of black students not to ever encounter black role models who disseminate knowledge as professors. Hopefully, the Rhodes debacle will force historically white universities to introspect and take decisive steps towards change.


This article was first published in the Business Day, 20 March 2015