The Rhodes statue is down – what now?
On the 9th of April, the Statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from UCT’s upper campus as a cheering crowd looked on. This was seen as a victory by many, but the question is now, whereto from here? Will this symbolic removal lead to the addressing of real underlying issues at UCT? Other symbols are being attacked – should they and will they be removed? Will this act as a rally point for the previously advantaged in this country, bringing racist feelings to the boil? Could this possibly lead to reconciliation in our country or will it further polarise us? Should we not be focusing on building, rather than tearing down?
Cecil John Rhodes
Cecil John Rhodes has been a divisive figure in Southern Africa, since his De Beers Consolidated Mines rose to prominence in the late 1800s. His actions as chairman of De Beers and as a politician alienated many, including the Basothos who were put down in the Gun War, black people in the Cape Colony who lost their land and enfranchisement, the Boers through his encouragement of the Jameson Raid and his involvement in the Boer War, the Portuguese and Germans who were prevented from furthering their colonial agendas and the people of Zimbabwe and Zambia (the former of which were defeated in the Matabele Wars). On the other side, he was influential in developing mining enterprises in the region, which was instrumental in growing the economies of these countries to where they are today.
As with so many successful individuals who became wealthy partly through the suffering of others, including John D Rockefeller and Alfred Nobel, Rhodes looked towards preserving a positive legacy in the latter part of his life. He bequeathed his lands on the slopes of Table Mountain to the SA nation (this led to the establishment of the Kirstenbosch Gardens and parts of it is now the UCT upper campus) and he established the Rhodes Scholarship. The positive influences of Rhodes were a small comfort to those that were disenfranchised and alienated by his actions and his legacy started to be dismantled in the latter 1900s when North and South Rhodesia were renamed Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its therefore no surprise that students from UCT felt aggrieved and disgusted by the prominent position that Rhodes’ statue occupied on their campus and demanded (and ultimately succeeded in obtaining) its removal.
Issues at UCT
However, the removal of the Rhodes statue can only be seen as a symbolic victory in my opinion. It does not address the real and serious issues that UCT students (especially those from previously disadvantaged communities face) and have been highlighted by the Rhodes Must Fall movement. It will not lead to the improved plight of UCT workers (including the reduced use of outsourcing). It will not deal with the financial and academic exclusion of black students. It will not deal with the underrepresentation of black academics. And it will not lead to a decolonialised curriculum. These are important issues that need to be addressed, but many of them should be laid at the feet of other parties than the UCT administration.
The plight of UCT workers can readily be addressed by the administration where it relates to making sure that they are treated in a respectful way as well as their working conditions, although this would have a financial impact. The issue of outsourcing is a double edged sword. If fewer tasks are outsourced, the increased financial burden would interfere with moves to increase the financial inclusion of black students and increasing the representation of black academics. The only solution would be to increase fees at the institution (which could lead to more exclusion) or obtain more funding from Government (who may prefer to channel this to previously disadvantaged institutions) or donors (many of whom may be disenchanted by the developments at UCT over the past months).
The academic exclusion of black students largely cannot be laid at the feet of the UCT administration. The problem here is more one of lowering standards in SA education as a whole. It is the responsibility of UCT to maintain its standards in the light of falling standards in general. This causes a growing gap that must be addressed by UCT if it wants to increase inclusivity. The increasing need for providing bridging programmes to students has a meaningful financial cost, which adds to the financial exclusion of many black students. To address this problem, it is vital that student activists like Rhodes Must Fall and others turn their attention to Government and teacher unions to tackle the root cause of the problem.
The financial exclusion of black students is ultimately the product of inequality in SA, the limited ability of our economy to create jobs and the financial implications of creating and increasing academic inclusivity at the institution. Although many of the economic pressures that SA face are external in nature, there is a great deal that Government can and should be doing, including driving the NDP aggressively, dealing with electricity supply, liberalising the labour market, encouraging growth industries, etc. Once again, student activists should use the energy of their process to approach institutions that are able to address these issues, including the Government and labour unions.
The issue of an underrepresentation of black academics is a tricky one. I do not dispute that to some extent this problem may be one inertia and prejudices within the UCT administration. To the extent that this is the case, the administration should take serious steps to address it. They should also be willing to spend more money to achieve this goal, although this is likely to be at the expense of UCT workers and the inclusivity of students. In my opinion, there are other issues that may contribute to this problem. There are arguably not enough academics in SA to start with, driven by the fact that there is not a strong enough academic culture in society, a lack of standards in SA education (affecting the academic pipeline) and the fact that academics simply is not as alluring financially as is the private sector. This problem is especially exacerbated in the case of black academics who feel the lure of the private sector even stronger due to the meaningful successes achieved with black economic empowerment and affirmative action. Academic institutions simply cannot compete for this limited pool of talent with their chequebooks. Instead of just pointing fingers at the UCT administration, student activists should also look towards improving education standards, encouraging bright lights within their communities to take up the challenge of academics and also looking inward – become tutors, lab assistants, part time lecturers, etc. The key is to increase the pool.
As far as decolonialising the curriculum, there is a serious risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water. By all means, address serious issues of concern, but do not sacrifice the standards within the institution that is UCT (currently ranked the 141st in the QS World University Rankings, up 4 positions from the previous year).
The removal of the Rhodes statue has created the ideal platform for parties on both sides of the political spectrum to find a rally point and I am very concerned about the polarising impact this is having and could have. On the one side, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is demanding the removal of numerous statues, including of Paul Kruger, Louis Botha and Queen Victoria. Many statues have been defaced. At the other end, Afrikaner groups are vowing to protect statues and monuments they hold dear. There are unfortunate racial overtones at both extremes and a clear sense of opportunistic behaviour, in my opinion.
We still suffer from meaningful polarisation in this country and the actions at both sides of the spectrum are likely to exacerbate the situation. In my opinion, it is vital that the government, political parties and other influential figures step in to calm tensions and de-escalate the situation. We need more voices of reason and we need our political leaders to resist the temptation of fuelling polarisation. For over 20 years since the democratic dispensation, we have managed to live in relative peace, allowing each other the freedom of expressing ideas and holding on to symbols that are dear. It is clear to me that more important than the symbols themselves, it is the state of our nation that is fuelling polarisation. If we had fewer problems facing us, if our economy was growing strongly, if more people had jobs, if more people looked forward to a bright future, the issue of symbols would fade in importance.
It is my hope that instead of destroying symbols of the past that we instead focus on building new symbols. Our past shows us the journey we have been on to get to where we are now and should not be swept under the rug. From here, we need to continue to develop our shared South African identity. However, to help in achieving this, we need to become more positive about this country. It is imperative that the problems facing us are addressed head-on by government and others, including our weak economic growth, our lack of job creation, our electricity supply, low education standards etc.
SA is an exceptional country with a colourful past. SA’s past represents a journey of good and bad, none of which should be forgotten. SA is a miracle that has only been made possible because we chose a path of reconciliation instead of retribution. Much has been done to improve the lives of everyone in SA and the results are tangible. However, we are facing tough times, driven by both external and internal issues. It is important that especially during these tough times, we should stand together and look for solutions rather than become more polarised. Our future remains bright and our problems can be addressed with the right political will and the support of us all. Let us rather look to the future than the past. As George Bernard Shaw said “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future”.
What do you think of the Rhodes statue removal? Is this the beginning of a movement to remove historical monuments? Will this encourage us to address the deeper issue plaguing our country and people? Will this lead to more polarisation? Will we see influential people stepping up to help de-escalate the situation? Will it fizzle away? I would love to read your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!