By Eusebius McKaiser
For two decades, many South Africans assumed that our university campuses had become politically apathetic. But this may be the year that South Africa’s students wake up from a deep sleep, refreshed and determined to demand transformation of their educational institutions.
Their activism has been stirred, unexpectedly, by a controversy over 19th-century history. Though the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes came to Africa to pillage, he has been immortalized in countless statues, highways, buildings and, for a time, even a posh Cape Town nightclub.
Rhodes’s staying power in post-apartheid South Africa was impressive for a man who plundered much of the region while amassing his fortune, worked tenaciously as a politician to disenfranchise black people, and dreamed of conquering Africa from the Cape to Cairo. Now, it seems, the historical amnesia has come to an end.
Students at the University of Cape Town are demanding the destruction or removal of a huge statue of Rhodes that stares down on the city from the mountainside campus, eulogizing the arch-imperialist with the words of another great admirer of empire, Rudyard Kipling: “Living he was the land, and dead, His soul shall be her soul!”
Twenty years after apartheid ended, South African universities remain a testament to the country’s colonial heritage in terms of what they teach, who does the teaching, and the morally odious symbols that haunt our campuses or lurk in their very names. In recent weeks, there have also been demands to change the name of Rhodes University, my own alma mater.
Both of these universities have hastily built up reputations as exemplars of diversity and inclusiveness. They are not.
At Rhodes, 83 percent of senior management staff remain white and 77 percent of “professionally qualified staff,” a category that includes academic teaching staff, are white. By 2013, only three percent of academic staff at U.C.T. were black, and there are only two full professors who are black in the faculty of Humanities.
It is little wonder many U.C.T. students are demanding the destruction or removal of a prominent statue of colonialism’s great exemplar, Cecil John Rhodes. And in my hometown of Grahamstown, a city born of colonial misadventure, we shouldn’t be surprised that many students are demanding the name of Rhodes University be changed.
Critics may ask of what use it is to dismantle symbols of colonialism on campuses if removing them won’t usher in transformed and more inclusive educational spaces?
But they miss the point. The core issue is a prevalent feeling, and experience, of exclusion among many black students in universities across the country, even where they are a numerical majority.
These (mostly white) critics fail to grasp the aesthetic and moral assault on one’s entire being that occurs when a black person walks across a campus covered with statues and monuments that celebrate colonial conquerors as heroes. It is disingenuous to pretend these statues originally existed, or could be re-imagined anew, as monuments that poke fun at the evil characters who looted the region while trampling on the fundamental rights of indigenous people. Rhodes bequeathed land and money to both universities, and erecting statues and naming things in his honor were expressions of gratitude. Why else include an inscription that reads, “To the spirit and life work of Cecil John Rhodes who loved and served South Africa”?
It is dishonest to deny the inherently celebratory nature of the Rhodes statue, and historical statues in general. While removing one won’t change institutional cultures overnight — or transform the demographics of staff — it would be an important symbolic start.
I defend the students’ demands to remove the statue and change Rhodes University’s name — despite being a Rhodes alumnus and a Rhodes Scholar.
Shedding some of these symbols would indicate institutional recognition that these protests are legitimate, and that some symbols are morally repulsive to a majority of South Africans. After they are removed, we can move on with the harder work of transforming educational institutions in a more fundamental way.
There are still hundreds of thousands of South African students who have been historically excluded from the higher education system and who still don’t have access to it. According to Inyathelo, a nonprofit education group, only 10 percent of black South Africans have access to university and only 5 percent complete their degrees, and most who do so struggle to complete these within the regulation time. And many campuses simply aren’t inclusive spaces where students other than the children of white alumni feel at ease.
Defenders of keeping the Rhodes statue seem particularly upset by the recent use of human waste to deface it. They deem it objectionably militant, or at the very least unhygienic, preferring protest methods that are clean and less disruptive.
They should be thankful that these protests aren’t actually militant. In fact, the current drama is a far cry from genuine student militancy. Militancy is what South Africa experienced in 1976, when high school students rose up in Soweto and paid with their lives. Today’s protesters could become genuinely militant, but only if their demands are misread and ignored.
And that’s a very real risk — because too many South Africans prefer to fall back on mythmaking tropes about our rainbow nation. Mythmaking soothes, but it leaves the country open to future ruptures, which could result, if the core issues are never adequately addressed, in uncontrollable explosions of discontent. And that’s far more dangerous for a young democracy than reducing Rhodes to rubble.
Institutions that benefited from Rhodes’ unjustly acquired wealth can start to make amends by using that wealth to expand access, increase diversity and create more educational opportunities on their own campuses. A good start would be the crushing of an odious monument to colonial evil.