From time to time, a debate flares up in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) student body about whether or not the statue of pioneering mining magnate and British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes should be removed from the university’s Groote Schuur estate.
The statue in question is a rather prominent feature of UCT’s architectural landscape, being situated at the base of the university’s Upper Campus – symbolically in line with Jameson Hall – overlooking the rugby fields. The larger-than-life statue, which depicts Rhodes seated in a chair, gazing north into the interior of Africa, was sculpted by British artist Marion Walgate, paid for by the Rhodes National South African Memorial Committee and unveiled in 1934.
In a nutshell, proponents of the removal of the statue argue that Rhodes was a racist imperialist whose immense wealth was accumulated through exploitation of cheap, subjugated black migrant workers from natural resources that rightfully belonged to the indigenous people of South Africa. They argue that the statue is a constant reminder of South Africa’s history of imperialism, dispossession and exploitation and, for that reason alone, it should be removed from the campus.
Towards the end of May, the debate gained prominence again when a group of anonymous graffiti artists, calling themselves Tokolos Stencils, whose objective is to “challenge the status quo of inequality in South African society”, defaced the statue with their trademark stencil, ‘Remember Marikana’, a day before the UCT debating society was due to host a public debate on that very subject.
In a statement claiming respon- sibility for that act of vandalism, Tokolos elaborated: “In honour of all black UCT students whose land was stolen from their ancestors and whose natural resources were privatised by one Cecil John Rhodes, Tokolos reminds us that colonialism and the massacre at Marikana are not only interconnected but [also] part of a long history of dispossession, exploitation and murder of blacks (especially poor blacks).”
However, in response to such arguments, two counterpoints need to be elaborated on. Firstly, Rhodes’ memorial is more symbolic of the mineral wealth this country is built on than it is of British imperialism in South Africa. Although there is no question that Rhodes was one of Britain’s most prominent imperialists of the late nineteenth century, the fact remains that his power and wealth were built on the foundations of diamond mining in Kimberley and gold mining in Johannesburg.
Secondly, and most importantly, it was Rhodes who donated a section of his Groote Schuur estate specifically for the establishment of a university.
Rhodes, who was himself Oxford-educated, was a firm advocate of university education and believed that South Africa lacked a great tertiary institution to rival those of Europe.
It was during his Kimberley days that Rhodes first began to dream of establishing a South African university, based near Cape Town, which could instill in male students from all the settlements south of the Zambezi an enthusiasm that would sustain closer union between the various Southern African colonies and States.
The young men who attended his university would, he proclaimed, “make the union of South Africa in the future”. In Rhodes’ opinion, there was “no place that can form, train and cultivate the ideas of the young men of this country, no place better suited to such objectives than the suburbs of Cape Town”.
At the time that Rhodes began such academic scheming, the African continent only had one university to speak of. In 1873, in response to the growing needs of a newly prosperous colony, the Cape government established the University of the Cape of Good Hope (UCGH). UCGH, however, was an examining university only – it set examinations for its degrees, which it awarded to successful candidates. Teaching was left to colleges in the colony that were able to prepare matriculated students for the examinations.
During his career as a MP and Premier of the Cape Colony, Rhodes advocated strongly for the establishment of a proper teaching and examining university in Cape Town; however, he failed to garner support for the idea, especially from his political allies, the Afrikaner Bond. Although the colossus died before he was able to see the idea come to fruition, being the visionary he was, he did bequeath a piece of his Groote Schuur estate specifically for establishing a university.
It was only after unification in 1910 that the new Union government, with its emphasis on English-Afrikaner reconciliation, began to seriously contemplate the implementation of Rhodes’ grand academic idea, where English and Dutch speakers could mingle during their student years, thus laying the foundation for future cooperation.
Fortunately, the Union government did not have to struggle to find the finances for such a scheme. It was able to persuade two of Rhodes’ erstwhile associates, Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher, to allow the late Alfred Beit’s bequest of £200 000 for a university in Johannesburg to be redirected to this greater national end and to add a further £300 000 to this sum. This meant that £500 000 was available at once for the creation of a new university for the whole of South Africa. It would take more than half a decade for this plan to come to fruition. UCT, as we know it today, was finally launched on April 2, 1918, while construction of the Groote Schuur campus got under way. Resentment
It is unlikely that the UCT administration will advocate for or even allow the removal of the statue, as it publicly acknowledges that “Rhodes’ imperialist and racist attitude to Africans causes much controversy and resentment today, but, without this section of the Groote Schuur estate, which he donated for the founding of a university, UCT would probably not have come into existence”
The removal of a simple statue can hardly change or suppress the history of this country.
(It should be noted that the outcome of the UCT student debate was 19 in favour of removal and 21 against.)