Jamaican News

Old South African statue of British imperialist sparks new debate about racism and equality

By Christopher Torchia


South Africa Statue Uproar

CAPE TOWN, South Africa _ It began with a container of excrement.

On March 9, a South African student protester tossed feces on a statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, igniting nationwide calls to remove other statues of former white leaders. A statue of Britain’s King George V on a University of KwaZulu-Natal campus was splattered with white paint. Some activists want a statue of Paul Kruger, a white Boer leader in the late 19th century, to be shifted from a central square in Pretoria, the capital, to a museum.

The uproar is part of a larger discourse about change in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid, the white minority rule that ended two decades ago, is often blamed for economic inequality, a struggling education system and other problems.

Mthunzi Mthimkhulu, a technology consultant and former student at the University of Cape Town, stood Saturday near the Rhodes statue, which had been wrapped in black garbage bags by protesters. Obscene graffiti covered the pedestal.

“We don’t need reminders of where we came from. We know our struggles,” he said. “What we need is things that will take us forward.”

By Sunday, the Rhodes statue was boarded up, its days apparently numbered. University Vice-Chancellor Max Price, who is white, described Rhodes as a “villain” and said the statue should be moved. Rhodes, who died in 1902, was “a kind of colonial warlord” and “ardent segregationist” who made a fortune in mining and grabbed land from the local population, said Paul Maylam, a history professor at Rhodes University in the South African city of Grahamstown. Rhodes was also associated with education and philanthropy, partly because of scholarships that carry his name, Maylam said.

There have been calls for Rhodes University’s name to be changed. University Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela said there should be a respectful debate.

Cape Town residents wonder about the fate of the temple-like Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, overlooking the city. There is also a Rhodes statue in Company’s Garden, a central park. One statue arm gestures to the distance and, in a call for British territorial expansion, a pedestal engraving reads: “Your hinterland is there.”

There is more to the furor.

Some South Africans complain that faculties at universities are mostly white and that Western-based curricula ignore African culture. Some also assert that Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was elected president in 1994, was too soft on a white minority that still commands enormous economic clout. On Tuesday, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the mineral resources minister, said there is “still some way to go” before most South Africans, particularly blacks, benefit from a mining industry forged many decades ago to benefit a “select few.”

South Africa is grappling with questions such as should the Rhodes statue and other perceived symbols of racial oppression be mothballed or displayed as warnings of what should never happen again? What, if anything, should take their place? Who decides? Where does it stop? One caller to a radio show mockingly asked whether the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which were designed more than a century ago and today house government offices, should be levelled.

Mthimkhulu, the former student, said he thinks the statue-targeting campaign is mushrooming now because, in the early years after apartheid, people focused on seizing jobs and other opportunities previously denied to them. Another theory is that South African blacks had directed their ire at symbols of the apartheid system overseen by the white Afrikaner minority, rather than the earlier British colonial period.

“I think this thing is going to snowball throughout South Africa,” said Chris Landsberg, an African diplomacy expert at the University of Johannesburg.

Last week, the academic moderated a statue debate at the Centre of the Book, a domed, early 20th century building on Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town. Activists hoisted banners reading “Rhodes must fall” and “All Rhodes lead to colonization of the mind.”

Landsberg also said there should be more critical debate about the legacy of Mandela, challenging the “iconization” of a leader memorialized in numerous sculptures and other tributes. In a conciliatory gesture, Mandela, who died in 2013, had lent his name to the Mandela Rhodes scholarships for postgraduate study in South Africa.

“By combining our name with that of Cecil John Rhodes in this initiative is to signal a closing of the circle and a coming together of two strands in our history,” Mandela said more than a decade ago.

The most sweeping name change happened in a neighbouring country whose name changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in 1980 after white rule ended. Zimbabwe also removed Rhodes statues, but resisted calls to dig up Rhodes’ grave in the Matobo National Park on grounds that it is a reminder of colonialism.

Andrew Dhliwayo, a Zimbabwean student at the University of Cape Town, described the Rhodes statue as a useful channel for debate.

“The fall of the statue won’t change much,” he said. “It’s just for people to get their views out there.”

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