Who was Cecil John Rhodes, the man at the center of the mayhem around South African statues? Rhodes is different things to different people; some call him evil, others say he was a hero. Whatever he was, he has caused a storm 114 years after his death.
Rhodes was a British expatriate who amassed a fortune in Africa from diamond and gold mining – the Aliko Dangote of his day. He died in Muizenberg near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1902. His corpse was transported by train to be buried in Malindidzimu in the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, as he wished.
More than a century later, his body and his imposing statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) lay undisturbed.
On March 10, it all changed when Chumani Maxwele, a fourth year political science student at the university, dressed in black tights, running shoes and a pink construction helmet, for a solitary protest. Maxwele poured excrement on the statue and placed a placard: “Exhibit White Arrogance @ UCT”. That was the birth of the great statue protest of 2015 that spread across the country.
Xolela Mangcu, a professor at UCT, supported the students’ movement that became known as Rhodes Must Fall.
“When I first arrived here three years ago, I was struck how white and European the university identity was, not just in terms of number of students but the content that is being taught. Nothing in the curriculum says you are in a South African university. The whole question whether UCT can imagine itself as an African university is what I have been raising in my intervention in both my columns and the university itself. The fact is that there are five black full professors out of 200. And there’s not a single South African black woman professor. That’s how I got into this debate. But I was ignored,” says Mangcu.
The debate had legs. Around 872 kilometers from Cape Town, in the heart of the Eastern Cape province, in the city of Grahamstown, lies Rhodes University, named after the British mining magnate in 1904. Grahamstown was named after Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham who drove the Xhosa tribe off their land. There have been calls to change the names of the city and the university.
Nomalanga Mkhize, a history lecturer at Rhodes University and a newspaper columnist, says the anger over Rhodes vindicates Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan scholar. As head of the Centre for African Studies at UCT in 1998, he developed a new curriculum elevating African scholarship, but the university waved it away.
“No doubt, the ‘Mamdani Affair’ is now embarrassing for UCT. It has become clear that he was right and his detractors were wrong,” says Mkhize.
Not every academic agrees. Shadrack Gutto, a professor from the University of South Africa and a constitutional rights expert, says preservation of the past is critical to progress and those who want to wipe the history because it is hurting are wasting their time and are ill-informed.
“History is never made on a clean slate. If you are talking about proper history, you are talking about history of tragedies, grief, happiness, periods of prosperity and periods of decline. From that point of view, you need to preserve all of it, in order to know where you are coming from, where you want to go. I don’t agree with the destruction of symbols of the past, they need to be there, the question is how are they explained and placed. We may disagree on where you place them. But to try to wipe them out, I think it is foolish and something that defies the understanding of people,” says Gutto.
“I support the spirit of 1976 students in the current UCT students. Whether they change their names or not or they have a black vice chancellor, the fact remains, universities have not been transformed.”
Gerhard Papenfus, Chief Executive of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa, says Cecil John Rhodes the person. He says Rhodes oversaw the death of his Afrikaaner ancestors 114 years ago, in the Anglo-Boer War, but he disagrees with the statue removal.
“So, after Cecil John Rhodes’ statue has been removed, followed by the statues of perhaps King George V at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Queen Victoria in Parliament, and then Paul Kruger in Church Square in Pretoria; and perhaps after convincing Robert Mugabe to remove David Livingstones’ statue from Victoria Falls and to exhume Rhodes bones from his grave on Malindidzimu, and after every street and school has been renamed and the history have been rewritten – then what?” asks Papenfus.
A month after Maxwele’s lone protest, statues of Mahatma Ghandi; an Indian human rights champion and Paul Kruger; the Afrikaaner leader and nemesis of Rhodes, along with others were smeared with paint and broken down.
The students at UCT got their wish. At 5:37AM on April 9, management removed the Rhodes statue to the cheers of students in an atmosphere thick with revolutionary slogans.
One would have thought that the removal would settle the dust. But members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign continued occupying Bremner Building, a main administration block, which students renamed Azania Building – the Pan-Africanist name for South Africa.
University officials served Maxwele and other students with an eviction letter and threatened to go to court. Three days later, the students left.
UCT council chairperson, Njongonkulu Ndungane, says the university will take up the transformation debate.
Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, was coincidentally in a two-day state visit to South Africa during the Rhodes debate. In a press conference in Pretoria there was laughter as he quipped about the debate over statues in South Africa and a grave in Zimbabwe.
“We have his corpse and you have his statue. What do you want us to do with him? Dig him up? We cannot tell you what to do with the statue but we and my people feel we need to leave him down there.”
One can argue that the noise Rhodes made in his life hasn’t stopped.