An alternative perspective from South Africa

While in South Africa this Christmas, I opened the local newspaper and news from Oxford was on page three. The Cape News had published an article on the success of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University. The article reported that a motion to take down Cecil Rhodes’ memorial statue displayed outside Oriel College was under construction. This surprised me: why was Oriel giving in to the student protesters and what did such a concession really mean? I started to ask the local people around me what they thought of Rhodes and his legacy, and to consider their reaction to the campaign. I was inspired to write this article based upon the responses I received.

South African people celebrate Rhodes for his contributions to the country’s economy and appear able to overlook the negative aspects of his person, i.e. the violence and racism he was a proponent of, as a feature of his time. The inhabitants of Cape Town remember Rhodes for: contributing the vision for and funds to construct the beautiful University of Cape Town; founding a diamond and gold business; and campaigning for the protection of huge areas of gardens and forest. Rhodes granted a generous legacy to the people of Cape Town in his will, as well as money for the famous Rhodes Scholarships and new buildings in Oxford, which we are all familiar with.

Distilled down, Rhodes is considered by local people in South Africa to have been a brilliant businessman, a generous philanthropist and a great builder of infrastructure. Contrary to what you might expect the epitaph of “British imperialist” was not once bestowed on Rhodes by those I spoke to. It is arguable that the memory of the Dutch Boers, as holders of power in the country, has been treated more cruelly by South African history than the memory of the British colonialists. I was struck that David, who worked on the hotel concierge desk, praised the British for their history of investing in and creating opportunities in South Africa, while juxtaposing this with how the Boers pillaged the wealth in South Africa for personal gain.

It is now common, with hindsight, to discard and discredit the achievements of British imperialism and instead focus on and judge the negative aspects of British colonial history by the standards of our modern, democratic society. However we were certainly not the only, nor necessarily the most culpable, Western colonial power to invade South Africa. The Boers relied on rifles and slave labour to exploit the territories they occupied – do the Dutch remember their colonial contributions with as much shame as is the current trend in Britain?

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I was surprised that in South Africa, a country which is now so sensitive to racial inequality due to the terrible memory of apartheid, people do not talk about the fact Rhodes was racist. This facet of his memory is simply condemned as part of South African history, which was inevitably a product of social construction, as opposed to a unique flaw in Rhodes. Indeed, it is easy to forget, in the fog of campaign fervour, to ground debate in historical context and contemporary social opinions. Judging Rhodes by our 21st century standards merely highlights why and how far society has advanced whilst accepting and understanding the reality of history requires an open mind and unobstructed access to facts: a duo which campaigners tend to neglect.

Considered rationally, the positive responses of South Africans to my questions about Rhodes are unsurprising. However, they surprised me as an individual who had only been encouraged to damn him by the reporting of the Oxford student press. Like him or not, Rhodes, along with his contemporary and adversary Paul Kurger, was a central figure in the development and creation of what became the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Just because we no longer endorse the attitudes of the past does not mean that the accurate and realistic historical record remaining in the form of works of art and architecture should be photoshopped to make the past more palatable to the present. No modern, educated person agrees with Rhodes’ 19th century values. He was a violent supremacist, abhorrent racist and diamond racketeer. But his statue in Oriel College is a fitting memorial to thank Rhodes for the £200,000 (in current valuation, £44million) he left to the college in his will. If Oriel is to take such a statue down, will they not take down the buildings which his endowment built? The removal of the statue would create a slippery slope and should not be a watershed in how individuals are remembered by history.

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We often forget what a privilege hindsight is. Just because modern thinking does not condone the use of slaves for building the pyramids, nor the policies of the pharaohs who ordered their construction, does not mean that a wonder of the world should be torn down. Just because we no longer practice bigotry and execution does not mean the portrait of Henry VIII in the dining hall of Christ Church should be removed. Historical figures who we are now so quick to criticise, cannot be forgotten and instead should be recognised for their positive and negative contributions to history, and importantly should be remembered in the context of the time they were alive. History can teach to avoid repetition of the mistakes of our forebears. How can we do this if their mistakes are whitewashed?

I worry that the removal of Rhodes’ statue in Oriel College could have future implications for philanthropy. If Rhodes, who benevolently left part of his fortune to educate future generations, is being vociferously hounded over a hundred years after his death for behaviour that was an aspect of life how he knew it, how will the campaigners of the future denounce today’s donors? Will Bill Gates or Warren Buffet also receive the same treatment in years to come for conduct our generation deems acceptable, but with the privilege of hindsight, is not?

To conclude, removing the statue of Rhodes in Oriel College does not mean that the injustice of the past he occupied will disappear too, in fact, it would do little to help those currently suffering at the hands of the issues in discussion. Concentrating the campaign to the damning of one individual, who was a lone figure rather than the embodiment of institutional racism, is not going to affect the problem nor account for the society that Rhodes is being forced to represent. Selectively redacting historical records jeopardises our ability to fully understand the legacy of the past and its continuing impact on the present. Removing the Rhodes statue would merely set a dangerous precedent for artefacts of historical significance around the world.