Embrace Rhodes's statue, it's a reminder of the past and of hope

Cecil John Rhodes, circa 1905. The statue protests should not overshadow the wider transformation debate, argues the writer. (Norman Hirst)

Cecil John Rhodes, circa 1905. The statue protests should not overshadow the wider transformation debate, argues the writer. (Norman Hirst)

As the debate raged in Cape Town over whether to remove the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, I found myself in a grand house named after him, some 9 600km away.

Rhodes House is the quaint Oxford-based headquarters of the Rhodes scholarships. Named for and funded by Rhodes, the scholarships are awarded annually to individuals from around the world – largely former British colonies – to pursue graduate study at the University of Oxford. Having won one of these last year, it did not escape me that, while his legacy was being viscerally debated back home, abroad everything seemed okay.

But it isn’t.
Rhodes’s legacy is one of the most devastating wounds inflicted upon the African continent. Through his relentless pursuit of wealth and power, people’s lives, freedom and dignity were not spared. His “visionary” project is, by and large, a significant cause of the many problems African countries, including my own, experience today. The patterns of development, urban migration and their associated ills are not coincidental. It is the very basis upon which many systems of structural privilege, most notably white privilege, are contingent upon.

It is in this context that I choose to view the #RhodesMustFall debate that currently dominates the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Although many rightfully think the form of protest is distasteful, to dwell on how it manifested – rather than why it did – misses the point. If this was, as it seems to be, a genuine attempt to highlight what a substantial constituency within UCT consider to be the institution’s lack of genuine engagement with issues of transformation, then it stands to reason why protesters took as drastic action as they did.

By targeting a visible symbol of white privilege – in as jarring a way as they could muster – protesters forced people to remove their blinkers, experience discomfort and see them and their issues clearly. The literal stink is a pungent reminder of just how limited polite conversation can be when those with whom you are conversing are deliberately or inadvertently ignorant about the problem.

But I don’t think the removal of the statue solves the problem. Logistical issues such as cost and feasibility aside, I think it threatens to distract us, as Toni Morrison cautioned, on racism.

This view is not aimed to undermine or silence the protest, nor is it to ignore the idea of symbols being important for the sake of inclusivity. Rather, it is to urge a caution: if the statue alone is held to be the manifestation of privilege – rather than the systemic – I am afraid that if the statue falls people will be lulled into a false sense of attainment.

Their outrage – so targeted and direct – would have attained something and dissipate. Equally, white South Africans should not be allowed to think – as they might – that it all ends with a statue. It does not.

If anything, we need the statue there to remind us daily that the struggle is far from over. And even though it may pain us to look upon it perched on the mountain, it should stand to remind us we still have a long way to go.

And the legacies of some of the senior Rhodes scholars, such as Bill Clinton, Kumi Naidoo, Edwin Cameron, Ngaire Woods, Amia Srinivasan and many more, should make us all realise that a dubious legacy does not shackle hope for the future. The history of the scholarship is peppered with glass ceiling breakers, social justice champions, human rights advocates and pioneering philanthropists.

The best way to atone for his privilege is to use what he has left behind and direct it towards something that would make him turn in his grave. I see no reason why UCT students should not make his legacy – and statue – their own and make it stand for something different.

The picture of Nelson Mandela seated and smiling next to a bust of Rhodes, which hangs in Milner Hall at Rhodes House, serves as a powerful lesson for me. We can get angry and seek bloody vengeance. It may be cathartic. It may make us feel good. But it’s nowhere near as good as looking an old enemy in the eye and realising that, despite their best, you are still here. And there is nothing they can do to change that.

It’s what I do every time I pass Rhodes’s bust. And one day I wish that every UCT student, particularly its black ones, can do the same.

Kameel Premhid has degrees from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is now studying at Oxford University

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