#RhodesMustFall has become a headline story and frequently used hash-tag in social media. It is has become the label given to a raging debate around curricula, race, white privilege and colonialism at institutions of higher learning in South Africa. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign began at one of Africa’s most prestigious universities, the University of Cape Town (UCT), and has now gained traction across South Africa and the world. Messages of support have come from University of California, Berkley, Oxford University and the University of the West Indies. Students at UCT began their protest some days ago by throwing human excrement on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on campus. This was followed by marches and a protest sit-in at the university’s admin building.
Cecil John Rhodes was a British Colonist who came to Southern Africa in 1870. He was a businessman, mining magnate and politician who believed in British Colonialism. The Southern African country, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), was named after Rhodes as was one of South Africa’s Universities – Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He set up the “Rhodes Scholarship” (which has enabled many South African students across different race groups to study in other universities like Oxford in the UK) that is still funded from his estate. Rhodes had a hand to play in the beginnings of racial segregation in South Africa. He helped draft a policy that later became the “Native Land Act” and was involved in pushing black people from their land to make way for industrial development. Upon his death in 1902 Rhodes donated his fortune to setting up UCT. A statue of Rhodes was erected on campus when the university was founded. Students want this statue removed and some are calling for his remains to be exhumed and sent back to the UK.
Protestors claim that the statue stands for white supremacy, racism, imperialism and the oppression of the black majority. UCT Vice-Chancellor, Prof Max Price, told a local newspaper, The City Press, that Rhodes “was a racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.” UCT management has agreed to remove the statue of Rhodes from the campus in the last few days. Although this might look like a victory for student protestors it is, in the greater scheme of things, rather miniscule. Not all black students agree with the call for Rhodes to be banished from the UCT campus either. A former black alumnus wrote “As a black UCT alumnus who walked past that statue for four years, I think Rhodes should be left exactly where he is. Removing him omits an essential part of the institution’s history that has contributed to everything good, bad and ugly about it – and arguably the country too.”Removing statues does not change history – even when it is painful – and certainly will not “fix” the problems that history created.
The protest has moved to other campuses in South Africa - including Rhodes University where students are demanding a name change and the University of KwaZulu/Natal (UKZN) where students have defaced a statue of King George V and draped a banner bearing the words “End white privilege.” The students at UKZN have begun their own hash-tag #GeorgeMustFall.
The Rhodes debacle is symbolic of many deep-seated and painful issues that plague South Africa - issues the country has not successfully negotiated since the advent of democracy 20 years ago. Only when these issues are addressed will healing slowly take place. A couple of days ago I was on a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town and two people behind me were talking about the “disgusting protest” that was taking place at UCT. The two, I guessed, had the privilege of a university education – they said things like “when we were students this would have led to severe disciplinary processes.” They discussed how action should have been taken against the students and why they should also have been expelled. The usual racial rhetoric then weaved its way into the conversation – the two were white – about how blacks are not competent or don’t appreciate history. Whites in South Africa don’t either and so the process of transformation and reconciliation has been slow, perhaps even negligible. And, unfortunately, these public debates often slump into racial slurs that cause further problems. We are yet to find a creative way of dealing with the painful past.
South Africa is a long way from dealing with its segregated history. It is easy to get onto the race bandwagon but we have to accept that, for many (white and black), this has not been dealt with and will continue to rear its ugly head. Post-Mandela leaders have, unfortunately, not stepped up to the plate and dismally failed to address legitimate concerns. Racial tensions are often manipulated for political gain and so it is easier not to seek the way of reconciliation for short-term person benefit. The internationally acclaimed “Truth & Reconciliation Commission” (TRC) dealt with some of South Africa’s apartheid past but is now a distant memory.
Therefore, for many black South Africans, transformation has failed. The government changed after democratic elections in 1994 but one privileged (white) class fell and another (black) took over. Many young black South Africans feel that despite democracy they are still being forced to assimilate a white or “Western” worldview. Several of the protesting students claim that on an institutional level none of their own culture or background is reflected. The curricula are still “Eurocentric” one student remarked and “Western political thought and modes of reasoning are still being taught with no reference to us and where we come from.” For them real transformation would be to intergrate their own culture, ideas and methods of doing things into the way big institutions, like the nations universities, operate.
Some university residences’ are accused of still serving Western dishes when most of the residents are African. Many African students struggle because they are being taught in English – the medium of instruction in most South African Universities – when most of them have English as a second, third or even fourth language. They have no choice. Then there is the question of appointing black academics at universities. Many of those who hold professorships in academic institutions are white. There is an imbalance, this cannot be denied.
But there is another thing worth considering in this raging debate: does obliterating the past help us move forward? Maybe the presence of Rhodes on the UCT campus is a constant reminder to South Africans, and the world, of the kind of past we should never allow to be recreated: one in which some think they are superior and set about subduing others in order to create a society that excludes. It’s a painful reminder yet, perhaps, more dangerous when forgotten.