27 March 2015

Row about Rhodes

Over the last few days I've seen a lot of comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town university, and some students demanding its removal.

Removing statues seems to be quite a popular activity, at least in some circles.

At one point a couple of friends and I contemplated the possibility of starting a campaign for the removal of the Ideomeneo sculpture at Unisa. Unlike the Rhodes statue, it was abstract, represented nothing, and was quite inoffensive.The aim of the campaign would have been satirical, to demonstrate that so many of the things that the university administration got into a tizz about (in the late 1980s) were quite trivial.

Nothing came of that, but the Taliban were much more serious about the destruction of Buddha statues in Afghanistan, which they accomplished expeditiously by using them for artillery practice, ignoring the protests of people all over the world.

When US troops invaded Iraq in 2003 they lost no time in toppling  a statue of Saddam Hussein, as a publicly staged media event.

And more recently ISIL is clearly sufficiently well-supplied with munitions to destroy ancient buildings and monuments of no strategic value, but perhaps of symbolic value in trying to erase history.

And if we go back a few years, there was a song:

One early morning in the year of '66
A bunch of Irish laddies was knocking up some tricks
They thought old Admiral Nelson had overstayed his time
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite.

Up went Nelson in old Dublin
Up went Nelson in old Dublin
All along O'Connell Street the stones and rubble flew
As up went Nelson and his pillar too.

So it seems to be quite a popular activity.

One exception that stands out is Zimbabwe, where there was a similar demand for the removal of Cecil Rhodes's grave. Robert Mugabe blocks Cecil John Rhodes exhumation - Telegraph:
Godfrey Mahachi, one of the country's foremost archaeologists picked by Mr Mugabe to be the director of Zimbabwe's National Museums and Monuments, said the grave was an important reminder of the country's colonialist past which could not be airbrushed out. The self-chosen burial place of Oxford-educated mining magnate and pioneer Rhodes in 1902, it still attracts thousands of visitors each year, bringing much-needed tourism revenue to the area. "The call for the removal of the grave is not new but our view is that it is part of national history and heritage and therefore it should not be tampered with," Mr Mahachi told the Zim Diaspora news website.
So it seems that there are widely differing views on this.

Since I have an interest in history, I tend to agree with the views of Godfrey Mahashi -- one cannot airbrush out the past, and when you do, it is all too easy to forget and repeat the mistakes of the past. As one person tweeted, in response to demands of students that the statue be removed, its removal would do nothing, absolutely nothing, to improve the education of those students. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with "transformation", just as our fantasy campaign for the removal of Ideomeneo would have done nothing to facilitate the transformation of Unisa. Removal of some of the dead wood among the teaching staff would have done far more to achieve that, but instead Unisa chose to remove whistle-blowers who pointed out what was wrong with the teaching material.

Cecil Rhodes was an excellent example of a businessman who became a politician in order to further his own business interests. And his statue can serve as a reminder of that very thing. He made his money out of diamond mines, and when he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony he secured a monopoly for his company. Let us look at his statue and remember.

What should be removed is not the statue but the businessmen of our own day who go into politics to further their own business interests. Rhodes is dead, and can do no more harm. But his successors do harm every day.


Chris Hall said...

Looks like a decision has already been made?


Steve Hayes said...

The decision is less important than the debate.

Rangjan said...

The debate over Rhodes and his legacy has been going on since his own day. Contemporaries such as Olive Schreiner were outspoken critics. Rhodes' sidekick Jameson (the central hall at UCT is named after him, and UCT has paintings if not statues of Jameson on prominent display) was a convicted war criminal. His conviction arose from the Jameson raid, presumably conducted at Rhodes' behest. Rhodes statues and the reverence given to him by UCT establishment has always been challenged by students at the University. What is interesting to me is how some people in South Africa are "racialising" the argument as an attack on white people and values. Perhaps this is an attempt to deflect attention from a very nasty man, or is it just a reflection of neurosis and insecurity?

Rangjan said...

Sorry, I also meant to ask Steve if Germany removing statues of Nazis from public display would be categorized as "airbrushing" of history? My sense would be, not necessarily in itself.

bigbluemeanie said...

"It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with "transformation", just as our fantasy campaign for the removal of Ideomeneo would have done nothing to facilitate the transformation of Unisa. "

I'm not convinced that it has nothing to do with transformation. I also thought it was a distraction from the real need for change at UCT, until I read more and found that the removal of the statue from pride of place on the campus was part of a wider campaign by the students.
See here: http://m.thoughtleader.co.za/mandelarhodesscholars/2015/03/26/ten-useless-responses-to-rhodesmustfall/

I also remember how in my day an SRC president poured red paint over the statue at a mass demonstration in protest at its dominant presence.

I also came across this scathing critique of Rhodes, from the UCT student newspaper in the 1960s:

Steve Hayes said...

I once visited Heidelberg in Germasny, and across the river from the town are some monastic ruins on top of a hill. My mother and her friend found them sdpooky, though I didn't. But halfway down the hill was an amphitheatre that the guide book coyly said was built in the 1930s for uns[pecified purposes. I found it spooky, far more spooky than what was on top of the hill. But I was glad that it was there, and I could see it. Auchwicz is also still there. The irony of Rhodes's statue was in its position -- every day he looked out on his imperialist dream, and it was not what he had dreamed.


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