Sometimes our perception and understanding of the past changes gradually, almost without us knowing. At other times the past erupts into the present, challenging what we think and how we feel, not only about history but about the world in which we live. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigns have had just that effect.
The controversy began at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in March, 2015. An activist for racial equality and African student rights defaced a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). His actions stimulated a ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement and, within a month, a university decision to remove the statue to an undisclosed location. To students and their representatives, the removal was symbolically significant; but it could not address – much less resolve – other pressing concerns: unfairness towards black students and disproportionately small numbers of black academics at UCT and other South African universities.
The campaign then spread beyond South Africa, to England and, specifically, to Oxford and its university, where Rhodes studied and to which he bequeathed part of his fortune.
In the United Kingdom the story of Cecil Rhodes’s life is no longer well known. That is not the case in southern Africa, where his influence and legacy are more readily apparent. A grandiose Rhodes Memorial overlooks Cape Town from Table Mountain, and at Kimberley in Northern Cape Province stands a huge statue (see picture). Neither is under threat – for the present at least.
In Zimbabwe, previously named ‘Rhodesia’, the past also complicates the present. Following independence in 1980 Zimbabweans removed from public view statues of Rhodes at Harare and Bulawayo. Yet President Robert Mugabe has long resisted calls for Rhodes’s remains, interred in the Matopos Hills south of Bulawayo, to be repatriated to Britain.
A clergyman’s son, Rhodes first went to southern Africa at age 17 to work with an older brother. The region was about to undergo economic and political upheaval as diamonds and then gold were discovered. There was opportunity for enrichment, exploitation, racial segregation and also empire-building through political manipulation, annexation and conquest. Rhodes played an influential role in all those spheres. His ambitions were boundless, fuelled by wealth and imperial, racial pride. The British, he wrote in 1877, are ‘the finest race in the world, and… the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race… what an alteration there would be, if those parts that are present inhabited by the most despicable of human beings… were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence’.
Wealthy and powerful, Rhodes during his lifetime was revered for business success and imperial adventurism, and reviled for unscrupulousness. In December 1892 Punch magazine published a now-famous image of him as colossus, bestriding Africa from Cape Town to Cairo (see picture).
Some contemporaries were very critical of Rhodes. One American author provided a damning assessment in 1897: according to Mark Twain, Rhodes ‘raids and robs and slays and enslaves’ Africans in Matabeleland (now part of Zimbabwe). Two years later some academics at Oxford University unsuccessfully disputed Rhodes’s entitlement to an honorary degree.
In his book on The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa (2005), the historian Paul Maylam asserts that Rhodes was less a visionary than an egoist, driven by vanity and obsessed by a desire for immortality. In that quest he would be remarkably successful, as attested by many statues and portraits, buildings and institutions and, above all, the Rhodes Scholarships. The most famous educational award in the English-speaking world, the scholarships have kept Rhodes’s name alive long after his death. The election of a former Rhodes scholar – Bill Clinton – to the US presidency in 1992 enhanced their prestige. So too did the creation in 2003 of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which makes scholarship awards to African students.
In the UK, Rhodes and his legacy are now the subject of public and media attention and debate, much of it centred on Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes bequeathed £100,000 to his old college, partly to fund a new building in his name. The building’s facade incorporates a statue of Rhodes, perched above ‘the High’, Oxford’s High Street (see picture). It has become the focus of a ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ campaign, to protest about racial discrimination and demand greater inclusivity at the university. Arguments for and against the statue’s removal involve students, alumni, academics, administrators and many others.
The debate has certainly been about Rhodes and race. But it is also about historical memory – and amnesia – together with freedom of expression within and beyond a university college and a university. The campaigns in South Africa and England remind us of the extent to which aspects of ‘the past’, such as empire, colonialism and slavery, continue to exert an influence on the present. They have helped to raise awareness of that past.
Oriel College, unlike the University of Cape Town, has decided to keep its statue of Rhodes in place. That decision is in some ways understandable. Institutions in countries that have ‘decolonised’, such as Zimbabwe in 1980 and South Africa in 1994, sooner or later find it necessary to break with the past, in part through removal or replacement of imperial and colonial symbols. The process of ‘decolonisation’ has not yet occurred to the same extent in the United Kingdom.
Some have argued that the Rhodes statue at Oriel really belongs in a museum. The time for that has not yet come. But the statue is really too important to be left where it is.
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University
Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Ghatsheni, ‘”Rhodes Must Fall”: South African universities as sites of struggle’, Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House, London School of Economics (LSE), London, WC2B 4JF, to be held on 9th March, 2016, at 6.30-8.00pm.