By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the protests at University of Cape Town, and followed #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall. Yes, the age-old problem of colonial legacy and heritage has reared its controversial head again. Southern Africa has come alive on this touchy topic, and judging from the reactions and debates on social media, the region is far from reconciling with its colonial past.
Cecil John Rhodes was not a nice man. That, I’m sure, we can all agree on. He lied, stole, cheated, and harassed his way to become filthy rich. For the longest time, he was presented in the history books as a progressive forward-thinker, who almost single-handedly made Southern Africa what it is today. Yes, he did shape Southern Africa. And this region still bears the scars of his schemes and interference.
This is the heart of the issue now: there’s a giant statue, in the heart of a campus in Southern Africa, of a man who deserves zero adoration, respect, or celebration. Rhodes did donate the land for the UCT campus – but then again, it wasn’t really his land to start with, was it? People walk by that statue every day, a constant reminder of the ‘great’ man who deigned to donate ‘his’ land and money to the establishment of a university. In a country that is still negotiating a difficult and traumatic history, it’s understandable that some students at UCT would be hurt by constantly being exposed to a monument of a man who killed millions of natives and relocated thousands of others. And when people feel like their voices are being shut out, when the Powers That Be refuse to even listen to your views and complaints, people get desperate. People get angry. People get drastic. The poo being flung on that statue was a demonstration of that frustration, anger, and disgust. It worked. People started to listen to their grievances.
Then came an equally controversial subject: changing the name of Rhodes University. This debate is not new; the proposal was first tabled all the way back in 1994, by the then Student Representative Council (SRC) President Vuyo Kahla. Fast forward to 2015, and the debate rages on, but something has changed. The warm, friendly atmosphere at Rhodes has often masked the underlying frustrations and tension that bubbled to the surface a few weeks ago. If an institution does not condone, nor associate ourselves with the views and morals of Rhodes, why do they insist on keeping the name? Name changes are not new: after Independence, did Zimbabwe not change its name from Rhodesia? If a university is so intent on preserving its brand, then surely its reputation should be based on the quality of its education, and not its name? Ultimately, why, until now, have people been so dismissive about this issue, an issue that clearly affects ALL of us?
Colonial baggage and the legacy of Rhodes is a burden that every Southern African must bear. History has not been kind to Africa, and as a Zimbabwean living in a foreign country, I can personally say that nothing is more aggravating than someone trivialising your distress and your history. Living with colonial legacy is hard enough, do we really need to live with the monuments that glorify a man who represents a particularly dark period in African history? A man who said,
“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better”
“I prefer land to niggers.”
Removing such monuments, contrary to popular belief, is not “erasing history”. Rather, it’s acknowledging that some of the men and women who were celebrated as heroes in their time do not deserve that honour today. The statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Zimbabwe was taken down, yet we are still very much aware of his life and legacy. Statues of Lenin, Stalin and Saddam Hussein have been torn down, but that was not followed by the world collectively hitting Delete on their histories.
At the end of the day, this is a discussion that’s not going to go away. It shouldn’t go away. The effects of colonisation are still strong today, and even though the Born Frees didn’t live through it, doesn’t mean we are not affected by it. Telling someone to “get over it” is downright insensitive and ignorant. All it comes down to is consideration. For any progress to be made, and for Southern Africa to reconcile with its tumultuous past, each of us needs to be open to each other’s perspectives, distress and opinions. To quote my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela,
“When you walk in someone else’s shoes that is when you realise what it is like to be that other person.”