Why would people want to keep the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT? That was a question I took to contemplating while showering in my flat in Norwich. I am not quite sure how I got there. Because I started the thought cycle off with: ‘Thank God the sun is out today!’ This was followed by the thought: ‘It is quite amazing how one’s mood can change merely because it is not raining.’ But somehow this resulted in several momentary thought flashes and then finally, as I took to the shampoo, I settled on: What is it about Rhodes that seemed worthy of support by some people during the #rhodesmustfall movement?
There was, amongst people I know, some resistance to the statue’s removal. But on what shaky ground were they standing? For me the best comment to come out of personal relations was one by a family friend of C’s. He took, I think, the best approach to the problem and went and read the biography of Rhodes in order to gain some perspective. On completion his final comment, as reported, was: ‘If he had done half the things that it said that he did in this book, I think I would have thrown shit on him too.’
So why is there still some loyalty to Rhodes’s memory? I think it is partly to do with a ‘founding myth’ that the white English speaking people of South Africa like to hold on to. Within this myth is the notion that the English colonialists came to colonies with good intentions. Of course the vast majority of this myth is complete hogwash. I say the vast majority because I do believe that there were, at least some, who did have good intentions and I don’t think one can tar everybody with the same brush. What is more I think that what Edward Said refers to as the ‘contrapuntal’ cultural interchange between certain aspects of the Europeans (mainly colonial dissenters of the likes of the Schrieners, the Moltenos, Margaret Ballinger, Alan Paton, Sailor Malan, Joe Slovo, the Torch Commando and Patrick Duncan etc.) and local cultures did produce, in South Africa at least, something quite remarkable. Something the ANC did its best to foster until relatively recently. Much like when Simone Weil, in The Need for Roots, talks of France and French colonialism containing two histories: one exemplified by ownership, dominance and rapacious expropriation and the other by that of equal rights, plurality and brotherhood, I think there have been two histories.
But much like Weil, one must acknowledge that the values inscribed in the French Revolution that were transported to the colonies were largely trampled on by the major tenets of colonialism and empire. Much like in South Africa the vast majority of colonial activity that took place, and certainly the activity that was hugely dominant, was that which can only be referred to as evil. Those liberal values, which came with some colonials, of inclusion, plurality, equal education, socialism and democracy hardly score highly on any unbiased evaluation.
I think the support for Rhodes by certain white people comes from a confusion. That is to say that they try to, I think either disingenuously or self-deludingly, claim that he was a liberal democrat and therefore on the side of good – they mention his ‘gifts’ like UCT and the Scholarship, roads etc. This is of course complete claptrap because in fact he was the first prime-minister of the Cape Colony to introduce laws that aimed at excluding people of other races, not to mention the countless crimes against humanity that he should be associated with. What is more Olive Schreiner and the liberals broke with him when he supported the ‘strop bill’ that allowed black and coloured servants to be flogged for small offences.
So why is the support for Rhodes still there? Well partly I think it stems from a kind of tribalism that exists in all countries and all democracies. Just look at the working-class areas in Britain that vote Conservative. Never have a group of people had less interest in helping their constituents and yet year in and year out some of the British working class believe that a bunch of self-entitled privileged rich capitalists have theirs interests at heart. The same goes for the large majority of people who will vote ANC in the next election. It is a matter of traditional leaders. Rhodes is still seen, I think, as the traditional leader of the white English speaking people of South Africa much like de la Rey and Zuma are to other sections of the population. Of course the English speakers don’t like to think of themselves as ‘tribal’ and they will justify their support on other terms: education, roads, railways etc. But the truth is, it is tribal in that it is an unthinking support for somebody they identify with on cultural, racial and political terms. Not to mention that I think that many whites still approve of Rhodes’s actions (but this is a separate point).
But this tribal affiliation does have, I think, something to do with apartheid. Because, during the National Party’s rule, Rhodes became, for some, a symbol for an antiapartheid stance. He was after all, along with most of the British, much maligned by the National Party. And so, I think, he became, in the minds of some, almost a kind of antiapartheid figure. No matter how cockeyed this idea might be, I personally remember feeling that considering the British had fought the Boers they must have been on the side of the right and good. To understand this position one has to have lived during apartheid era propaganda where, in all the history textbooks, the British were depicted as vile, corrupt and stupid (I remember a TV program on Scotty Smith very much depicted them as such). I guess many of the depictions may have had some veracity. However, considering that these seemingly biased representations were being forced on us by the National Party it was at least understandable to believe that this was merely part of the apartheid system. Apartheid’s depiction of the British was, after all, quite similar to the way they depicted the ANC, stupid and corrupted by an evil political agenda and ideology. So I think that at least some of this tribal affiliation was fostered by apartheid and it is a feeling that is difficult to shake.
This is not an unusual position for people bred on a myth. After all, what many whites claim to struggle with these days is just why people, who are excluded by the current status quo, would vote for the same man that is repressing them i.e. Zuma. But the very people who claim to not understand this position are quite often those who still belief that Rhodes was a decent sort of a chap, despite the evidence against him. This seems much like Zuma’s status at the moment. Sometimes cultural upbringing – whether it be the British working class who vote Conservative, the English speaking people who hold on to Rhodes’s memory, or the excluded who will vote for Zuma – is just more important than the facts. At first while thinking about this I thought I should point out that Zuma and Rhodes are not comparable. Zuma did after all go to jail, he did stand against apartheid, he did stop Mbeki’s AIDS policy, he did help solve the problems in KwaZulu-Natal. But this list when faced with another, Nkandla, Marikana, Guptas, Rape trial etc., begins to look a little like the list dredged up in support of Rhodes. And as Fezokuhle Mthonti says in a brilliant recent article on The Con Mag: Zuma is ‘committed to the violation of his own country’s resources in an attempt to line his own pockets and build an empire furnished by corruption and greed.’