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University's Rhodes statue sparks new row over South Africa's past

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Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The ruling body of South Africa’s oldest university is set to rule next week on the removal of a bronze statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the mining magnate who gave his name to Rhodesia, colonial-era Zimbabwe.


South African students have demanded that the statue be removed from the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus.

The UCT was built on land said to have been donated by Rhodes a century ago.

Protesters have challenged this narrative, arguing that the notoriously racist Rhodes cannot have donated land that belonged to African communities.

Politicians, academics and writers have weighed in, many casting a baleful eye on Rhodes’s statue and on the Grahamstown university that is named after him.

"We believe that his ideas and legacy do not have a place in the new, democratic South Africa," said Tokelo Onhlapo, a parliamentary researcher with the Economic Freedom Fighters, a left-wing party, in a phone interview. "What Rhodes represents to us as black people is the idea of white supremacy and we believe that white supremacy has no place in South Africa."

Many in the anti-Rhodes camp believe his statue and other signs of South Africa’s colonial past should be removed yet preserved.

"My view is not that they should be destroyed but put in some museum because they are part of history," has argued Zakes Mda, an award-winning a novelist, poet and playwright. "They must not be in places where they are glorified or honoured."

Critics have accused students of rewriting South Africa’s history, a charge political activist Onhlapo does not deny.

"We want to rewrite our own history because the [other version of] history is inaccurate," he remarked. "No European could have come to South Africa and donated land. No European discovered Africa because we’ve always been here. We want to change the whole discourse that white people came here and civilised us."

South African writer Eusebius McKaiser, who went to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, before going to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, has rejected accusations that the anti-Rhodes camp is keen to rewrite history.

"History cannot be rewritten because history already happened" he said in a phone interview. "So to claim that the aim of the movement is to rewrite history or to reinvent the past is to be condescending about what is actually the motivation of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign."

The debate has been heated, even passionate, but rival camps have been trading words, not blows, leading writer Mda to believe that South Africans have learned to wrestle with the demons of their past with a degree of serenity.

Mda nonetheless finds it odd that South Africans are now – 20 years after the collapse of apartheid – debating Rhodes’s legacy with such gusto.

"The statue, of course, will be removed and we’ll wake up tomorrow in South Africa [without] electricity, we’ll still have corrupt leaders who are messing up the country," he mused. "Struggles like these, although meaningful, also serve to take the focus away from some of the most important struggles that we should be waging now against the present rulers, the present corrupt leadership who are taking the country down the drain and destroying it."

Many, perhaps most, whites are opposed to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. The conservative camp’s reaction has been "visceral and vicious," according to writer and activist Gillian Schutte. "That reaction is extremely fear-based, extemely aggressive," she said. "It talks about blackness per se in very negative terms, almost like the propaganda of the 19th century, dehumanising the black response to apartheid and colonial effigies."

The debate over white symbols has led some to take a critical look at the white presence in South African universities.

At Rhodes University, 83 per cent of senior management staff and 77 per cent of professionally qualified staff, a category including academic teaching staff, are white.

The University of Cape Town council is set to make a final decision on the campus’s Rhodes statue 8 April.