Defaced statue of Louis Botha outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town during the #RhodesMustFall campaign
A foul stench has overtaken the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. Earlier this month a group of student protesters led by student Chumani Maxwele dumped human faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands on the university’s upper campus. In the words of Maxwele:
“This poo that we are throwing on the statue represents the shame of black people. By throwing it on the statue we are throwing our shame to whites’ affluence. As black students here we have to change our ways just to fit in, and we have to keep quiet for almost three years before we can speak in the classrooms. It is time for all of that to change.”
This action has sparked a movement at UCT, with students crying out that #RhodesMustFall. Of course, this protest is about much more than just a statue: 21 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still a divided country in many ways.
UCT is a perfect example of how white South Africans still control the country’s institutions; of the 1,500 academics at the university, only 100 are black. How can this be the situation in a country where only about 8.4% of the population is white? The end of apartheid brought about a constitution and a Bill of Rights that provides South Africans with some of the most extensive stipulations regarding human rights in the world, while mechanisms such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) have attempted to achieve reconciliation between South Africans. Though these actions were meant to provide more equal and fair representation for black South Africans in the country’s businesses, universities and institutions, the reality is far from ideal. White South Africans still control most of South Africa’s wealth, as well as its important institutions that influence culture, access to education, and healthcare, while most black South Africans still live in poverty. What, then, is to be done?
When speaking about the Rhodes statue, Maxwele said: “How can this statue still stand on a road called Madiba Circle? By doing that we are making history beautiful when it is not. Also every year we have the Steve Biko memorial speech and it is held in the Jameson Hall. These are all fraudulent relationships.” Maxwele’s statement captures the complex duality of progress in South Africa. While aspects of the new South Africa have been integrated and introduced into the country’s institutions, such as naming roads or memorial speeches in honor of black freedom fighters, these have a limited scope and still function within the boundaries of white cultural hegemony. Black students attending institutions like UCT find that they often have to adopt white South African culture to fit in. This dilemma extends to South Africa as a whole: though the country has seen the emergence of a growing black middle class, many people feel that middle and upper class black South Africans are forced to become “coconuts” — black on the outside, white on the inside — to fit into the white-dominated privileged classes. Why is this still the situation more than two decades after the end of apartheid?
Perhaps the solution, as promoted by protesters at UCT, is to dismantle the problematic white-supremacist elements of South Africa’s institutions. South Africa can look to its neighbor, Zimbabwe — formerly named Rhodesia in honor of Rhodes — as an example of this option. Following the advent of independence, Zimbabwe changed all street and city names, including that of the country’s capital, Harare, formerly known as Salisbury. The government also made a point to rectify all statues in the country that stood as reminders of the nation’s colonial, racially-divided past.
Zimbabwe and South Africa once stood on equal footing as the jewels of southern Africa, yet have since been divided in many ways, not least in how they have approached their freedom from white rule. Zimbabwe dismantled, often aggressively, the white-dominated institutions that had oppressed the majority black population through measures like the country’s infamous land redistribution efforts, while, conversely, South Africa has done very little to change the status quo of white supremacy. The country has become more equal politically, but the land’s wealth — and, by extension, its power — has remained largely in the hands of its white population. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is often harshly criticized for its actions over the past decades, which have driven white Zimbabweans out of the country. Is there another answer?
Wilmot James of the Democratic Alliance (DA) proposed in a statement:
“Why not build a statue of another figure that engages Rhodes in perpetual conversation? This would symbolize the dialogue and reflection that must happen in each generation, not in the absence of the past, but precisely because of it. Righteousness is not the sole preserve of some; neither is morality the possession of the victors or rulers of the day. We must also, as Mandela did so admirably, incorporate the past into a vision for the future.”
Though building another statue next to that of Rhodes may not be the answer, James’s statement raises an interesting line of thought: should South Africa face its past head-on rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet? Putting two statues next to each other wouldn’t achieve this; it would have the same effect as holding the Steve Biko memorial speech in the Jameson Hall, named after Leander Starr Jameson, a brutal lieutenant under Rhodes. This act holds some reconciliatory strength, where a freedom fighter is commemorated along with a colonial official, but does little to upset the status quo. South Africa will never be able to remove all the symbols of its difficult past, nor should it try to. Instead, the past should be confronted in order to overcome its lasting effects.
While the statue of Rhodes may act as a rallying cry, the real problem is the multifaceted institutional racism evident at institutions such as UCT. These are the wrongs that must be rectified, and soon. If the “Born Free Generation” is going to transform South Africa for the better, it needs to have access to the means of doing so. This single statue can be moved or it can stay put, but the real progress that South Africa needs is institutional change.
Adrian Jennings is a first-year student at Wheaton College, looking to study Chinese and Mathematics. He is a Staff Writer for The Diplomacist.