Rarely does a story begin with the throwing of human excrement. So, when University of Cape Town student, Manxwele Chumani, decided to throw faeces one fine March day at the bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes, he probably guessed it would make the gossip rounds on campus. His imagination might not have taken him as far as sparking a national debate – even less so, making international headlines. Maybe it was the human excrement, and not the more acceptable animal variety, which made this act such a noteworthy event for the media. Like fellow student and Rhodes Must Fall movement leader, Kgotsi Chikane, pointed out: “I don’t even know where [one] would begin to go to collect human feces [sic.]” Where indeed.
To briefly recap: Manxwele’s soiling of the statue gave rise to the “Rhodes Must Fall” student movement which – adopting the one-size-fits-all protest gesture of taping mouths shut – demanded its removal from campus. The offence? Rhodes, true to his Victorian roots, was not a very unprejudiced nor a warmhearted fellow. As a mining magnate, he used his influence and insatiability for minerals to expand the British Empire in Africa, and held the combined virtues of colonialism and capitalism in a particular high regard. Of the English, he once expressed: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”* This quote could stand on its own quite nicely, but PR people didn’t have a prominent role back in the 1800s, so here’s the rest of it: “Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”
Given Rhodes’ exploits and philosophy, it isn’t hard to understand why students calling for the statue’s removal declared it a disgrace to celebrate “white structure” through the icons of black African oppressors – a symbol they cannot and do not wish to relate to – and that they have asked for a wider transformation within the university that moves away from Eurocentrism to a pan-African identity.
Since March, the movement has gone off-campus and expanded to call for the ousting of all monuments paying tribute to white figures from South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history. King George V, Afrikaans president Paul Kruger and prime minister Louis Botha, a Boer War Memorial and the distant hand of British Imperialism itself, Queen Victoria, have now joined the ranks of the defaced. Thankfully, human excrement was only saved for Rhodes himself, but the paint and fire used in subsequent vandalisations were nonetheless effective.
If we were to take down the monuments in the embodiment or memory of historical figures who subjected their own people or another race to some version of inhumanity, many of the artefacts that well-paying tourists have come to know and love would cease to exist. At least Europe would practically be stripped bare. We can’t just choose to commemorate the heroic freedom fighters of history. Or so the argument goes for those disapproving of the protests (which presumably also includes the handful of Afrikaners who chained themselves to a statue crying cultural genocide). Yet it does seem odd saying that when the Germans and Italians and French chose not to erect prominent landmarks commemorating Hitler or Mussolini or Maréchal Pétain, and Hungarians and Iraqis famously tore down statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein (respectively). Their decision doesn’t necessarily denote a selective memory of history, as much as a heedful remembering of it constrained to museums and text books.
Despite the Rhodes statue posing quite a conundrum for the University of Cape Town’s Council (whatever Rhodes was, his estate bequeathed the land on which the university stands and continues to sponsor the renowned Rhodes scholarship), it sided with the students and the statue was removed this week, with the university also accepting to expedite other aspects of transformation. UCT students can claim victory: a hundred odd years after Rhodes’ death, he is now accounting for – if not his crimes against humanity – the continued influence his legacy still bears. So there’s hope that, maybe by 2120, current South African leaders could too be held accountable in some minor way for unfettered corruption, for policies hindering press freedom, or for philosophical statements on the HIV-fending power of showering. Better late than never.
* Cecil Rhodes, “Confession of Faith” (1877): http://www.pitt.edu/~syd/rhod.html