Leslie Bank debates the future of UCT's Rhodes statue

01 April 2015 | Story by Newsroom
"I do see why it might be necessary to remove Rhodes' grave and remains from the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe where his body was inserted among the graves of great chiefs in an African ancestral landscape. That seems rude and inappropriate.
"I do see why it might be necessary to remove Rhodes' grave and remains from the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe where his body was inserted among the graves of great chiefs in an African ancestral landscape. That seems rude and inappropriate.

Leslie Bank is Director and professor of the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research. In this piece from the Daily Dispatch, he debates the future of UCT's Rhodes statue and reviews broader transformation issues in Higher Education.

Earlier this week, University of Cape Town associate professor Xolela Mangcu heralded on these pages, a protest at the university that included the soiling of Cecil John Rhodes' statue, as genuinely transformative and marking race as a central issue. It had the potential to initiate new political and social transformation, he said ("Shattering myth that race doesn't matter" DD, March 24).

I have a problem with the compression of whiteness into the figure of Rhodes and the assumption that the transformation issue at UCT is simply a racial one. Surely it is about the kind of universities we want rather than the colour of the leadership and academics?

The actions of the students at UCT legitimately highlight the problem of having a potent colonial symbol like Rhodes appearing prominently on the grounds of a South African university without qualification, justification and signage. Why is there nothing to indicate exactly how and why he is there, and what the university thinks of this presence, his history and legacy?

This was clearly a massive oversight on the part of UCT's senior administration. It should have been dealt with long before vice chancellor Max Price took office, by his predecessors, Mamphela Ramphele and Ndebele Njabulo.

The Rhodes statue issue has also ignited lively debate elsewhere about the colonial history and legacy of universities. In the Eastern Cape there is animated debate again about the naming of Rhodes and Fort Hare universities, as well as in Zimbabwe over whether Rhodes remains should be removed from the Matopos.

At Fort Hare, the SRC has demanded that the university's name be changed to Robert Sobukwe University, which the leadership at Fort Hare has so far rejected. At Rhodes, some students insist that the new vice chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, change the university's name as a matter of urgency.

The reluctance of institutions to do this, especially universities with long and distinguished histories like Rhodes and Fort Hare, is understandable given that they enjoy considerable international brand recognition. And in both cases these brands are associated with leadership and excellence in different fields. Everyone knows that Nelson Mandela went to Fort Hare and that Rhodes has a record of academic excellence befitting of an association with the internationally renowned Rhodes scholarship. To drop these names would send both institutions a long way back in the queue of wannabe universities scrabbling for global recognition and resources.

A possible loss in donor funding makes the decision a tough one, but probably one he will eventually have to make. The Rhodes–Mandela University might have been a good compromise strategy a decade ago, had it not been for the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. It would have signalled Oxford–level ambition, while endorsing their slogan – where African leaders learn. But I think that moment has passed now.

Fort Hare is an interesting case. While the university carries the name of a colonial military colonel whose job it was to pacify the Xhosa people, Fort Hare as a brand means something very different. It is a global marker of blackness, of the agency of African people in their own liberation struggle and is synonymous with the rise of African nationalism in Southern Africa.

In this case colonial symbolism or a name has been emptied of its original meaning. To change this university's name would indeed lose some of the power of that special history. The Rhodes legacy in South Africa is a complicated one and he cannot be easily erased from our landscape. He is still around everywhere in our society.

Rhodes was also not only a man with racist views – like virtually all white men of power in his generation – and a champion of racially based segregationist policies in South Africa, but he also represented colonial globalised capitalism. And the modern version of this – neoliberalism – is the official economic policy of the ANC government. It is here that Rhodes' whiteness blurs.

Indeed, many of his ideas and inventions have been uncritically adopted by our post–apartheid government and are clearly reflected in ANC policy. Rhodes' legacy clearly goes much further than his whiteness. It is part and parcel of our national political and economic landscape.

In the Eastern Cape, he promoted land tenure reform to increase production from African farmers for colonial markets, which is not very different from the ANC emerging farmer programmes, which seek increased production for global markets. The Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 was almost a carbon copy of Rhodes' Glen Grey Act of 1885, which he pushed through the Cape parliament.

He was also the architect of mixed government in rural areas, where chiefs ruled together with elected officials. The ANC has adopted this approach since 1994 through the retention of tribal or traditional authorities combined with democratic local authorities. Many disagree and demand full democracy in rural areas.

There is obviously a need for much more recognition in the debate about the continuities of his legacy and what people say about this across a number of spheres of the society and economy. Isn't it also true that many white and black students at UCT embrace the prestige attached to the Eurocentric Oxbridge style of higher education they receive there? It gives them status and recognition they would not receive graduating from historically black universities. Isn't this why many students are at UCT in the first place? To gain access to the global reach of so–called "whiteness".

Is this also not why Mangcu himself works at UCT, rather than Fort Hare or Walter Sisulu University, which would be much closer to his beloved Steve Biko Centre? And does rejecting Rhodes and his whiteness also mean rejecting the university with its current curriculum, intellectual content and organisational forms, not just the colour of its staff?

Should we drop the Western ideas of academic excellence or the globally accepted standards to which this university aspires and replace them with a knowledge structure that reflects indigenous African culture and local knowledge?

Many at Fort Hare would say yes, but what do the UCT students say? What kind of education do they want and is it possible to remove whiteness from higher education altogether? The students at UCT complain they can't breathe because of the "suffocating whiteness" of the institution.

But is the answer to simply replace this with what might become "suffocating nationalism" retained in an island of disconnected elitism. This has been the model for many postcolonial African institutions where more effort has been placed on de–racialising them than decolonising them.

Now, I do see why it might be necessary to remove Rhodes' grave and remains from the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe where his body was inserted among the graves of great chiefs in an African ancestral landscape. That seems rude and inappropriate. But to deny him a spot in the grounds of UCT seems more like denial, or an attempt to erase history.

The fact is, he is part of this landscape and government policy whether one likes it or not.

There are undoubtedly urgent issues of transformation to be addressed at UCT and to the extent that soiling Rhodes' statue brought these to the fore, I welcome this. I also acknowledge the power of Rhodes as a symbol of oppression. But let's not pretend that genuine transformation at UCT is limited to changing the colour of the leadership or academic staff.

By Leslie Bank. This article first appeared in the Daily Dispatch on March 27, 2015. Image of Rhodes' grave courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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