Memory and pain: Why Cape Town University should give me Cecil Rhodes’ hated statue

We would be poorer if Senegal hadn't preserved the House of Slaves, and if Rwanda hadn't built the Genocide Memorial.

BLACK students celebrated the fall of a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Thursday, as some white groups protested what they see as threats to their heritage, AFP reported.

Cheers went up as a crane removed the huge bronze statue from its plinth at South Africa’s oldest university after a month of student demonstrations against a perceived symbol of historical white oppression.

Some students in the crowd of hundreds slapped the statue as it came down amid ululating and cries of “amandla” (power), while others splashed red paint on it and wrapped Rhodes’ head in paper.

The government welcomed the removal of the statue, which was given the go-ahead by the mainly white university council in a vote on Wednesday night.

Student activists with a banner in front of colonialist Cecil Rhodes’ statue - indeed Rhodes fell. (Photo/UCT/Facebook).

The university, which is regularly ranked as the best on the continent, was built on land donated by Rhodes, a notoriously racist mining magnate who died in 1902.

The protests began last month when a student flung a bucket of human excrement at the statue, prompting other attacks on colonial statues around the country.

A divisive heritage

Earlier, the youth wing of white Afrikaner solidarity group AfriForum handed a memorandum to parliament in Cape Town to “demand protection” for their heritage.

The Afrikaners are descendents of mainly Dutch settlers from the 17th and 18th centuries and dominated South Africa’s white-minority government before the end of apartheid in 1994.

They are no fans of Rhodes, who was on the British side in the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the 20th century, but have seen statues of their own heroes come under attack in the wake of the university protests.

Afrikaner men, some of them in quasi-military outfits, demonstrated on Wednesday at the statue in Pretoria of former president Paul Kruger—which had been splattered with paint—and at the monument to the leader of the first settlers, Jan van Riebeeck, in Cape Town.

And those are the facts in the news.

The really difficult part is whether that was the right way to treat Cecil Rhode’s statue. Yes, it was.

But was it the best way? No.

Such treatment of statues, street names, photographs of hated and controversial figures is common in Africa and the world over. It offers an important quick symbolic victory for the dominant political force or movement of the day.

Over the years, though, I have become very doubtful that that approach is helpful in the long run.

I covered the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) war, and the genocide story. Ordinarily, the Rwanda  Genocide Memorial in Kigali should not have much effect on me since I had “seen it all”.

However, it does. So much so that I can no longer bear to visit it when I am in Kigali.

House of Slaves

When I visited the House of Slaves on Senegal’s Goree Island, I was extremely upset. Yet, not only had I read extensively about the slave trade, I had watched the TV series “Roots”, and nearly everything that has ever been filmed on slavery.

Visually, there is nothing dramatic about the House of Slaves. There are only about six tools of the slavers, there are no slave dummies, nothing. Just the tiny cells, the “door of no return”, and the stories. But they are more gut-wrenching than anything you will see in a photograph or film on the slave trade.

The Kigali Genocide memorial makes the horror of what happened in 1994 inescapable; and the House of Slaves raises from the dead an atrocity from over 200 years ago and shoves it fresh in your face. 

The Genocide Memorial in Kigali: It throws up some very uncomfortable moments. (Photo/Genocide Memorial/FB).

Even a man like Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in detention and endured Robben Island, was reduced to tears when he visited the House of Slaves. We would be poorer if the Memorial hadn’t been built, and if the House hadn’t been preserved, though they are both memories of ignominy.

Remembering and pain

It has long brought me to a realisation; it is easy to denounce and punish oppression, savagery, injustice, and the dehumanisation man inflicts on man and woman.

The more difficult thing is to learn from it so that we ourselves do better and are more just. That learning partly comes from not forgetting. So the best thing we can do with the pain of history, even if we can forgive or reconcile with it as indeed South Africa has tried to do, is not to forget it.

President Obama and his wife Michelle at the “door of no return” on Goree Island. (Photo/AFP).

One good way not to forget the things we hate, is not to banish them out of sight or to bury them. It takes talent and wisdom to keep a grievance creatively alive.

Then it was also brought starkly to me that these struggles with our pasts and souls are interconnectedness with many other things in way we might not always realise.

On Monday, students at the same University of Cape Town held a vigil in rememberance of the over 140 Kenyan Garissa university students who were massacred by Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants on April 2, 2015.

When I tweeted about it, a tweep immediately replied, saying it was ironical that South Africans were holding an event in solidarity with other Africans who were killed far away,  yet they were attacking African immigrants in their country.

When the photographs of the vigil came out, someone remarked to me; “No wonder, they are mostly white, and I think the other black students in the photograph must be East Africans”. I would never have cottoned on to both of those things if they hadn’t mentioned them.

Vigil for the victims of the Kenya Garissa university attack in Cape Town. (Photo/Getty Images).

More broadly and significantly, though, both comments reflect the view that is emerging elsewhere in Africa that post-apartheid South Africa – especially the black “victors” - are losing the righteousness that informed their anti-apartheid struggle.

Black South Africa and morality

As it happened, on Thursday over a thousand immigrants in South Africa, mostly African, fled their homes following a series of violent attacks by locals in the eastern port city of Durban, in the country’s latest bout of xenophobic rage.

The attacks came days come after Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini said immigrants should “pack their bags and leave” the country. Ordinarily, you would expect a king to know better.

A xenophobia victim would probably wonder whether black South Africans really have the moral authority to bring down a Cecil Rhodes statue.

But I take a more generous view; I think the sin of black South Africa is forgetting – or better still, selective remembering. It is an easy course for many, not just South Africans.

When I was editor at The Monitor in Uganda (which we then owned as a collective), we worked our shirts off, built a new office complex, and bought and installed the country’s first colour web press in 1997.

We had a big loud party to open the office and launch the press, to which all progressive folks in Kampala were invited.

Heroes and rogues gallery

We were a troublesome and rebellious lot, so we did something that had never been done in the troubled history of Uganda; we got photographs of all the country’s many past leaders – including the murderous military dictator Idi Amin, and President Yoweri Museveni’s archfoe Milton Obote – framed them, and lined them on a “history wall” in the lounge. It was a heroes and rogues gallery, really.

Our party guests were shocked and impressed in equal measure. Some thought we were crazy, and would be arrested for our temerity. We weren’t.

In later months, the wall was to become a mini tourist attraction in its own right. Our answer to most people who asked us why was a version of “look at it, and see what it tells you”.

Many of us at the Monitor (including myself) had family and friends who had been killed, imprisoned, or exiled either under Amin’s or Obote’s rule. It was not always easy to pass by the photo gallery without conflicted feelings, but we kept listening to our heads, not our hearts.

At that point, Obote was living in exile in Zambia, and Amin in Saudi Arabia. Many a time Museveni had said Obote would be “shot on sight” should he ever set foot in Uganda.

Amin died in 2003. His body wasn’t returned home. He was buried in Saudi Arabia. By that point, though, Museveni had got past his umbrage with Amin and even appointed one of his sons his son a presidential adviser.

Obote died in 2005. His body was flown back home. It lay in Parliament, and a mellowed Museveni gave him a state funeral.

Almost 15 years after our heroes and rogues wall went up, the Parliament of Uganda was crowing proudly that it too had finally put up its gallery of all past leaders. There is also another in the lobby of The Independent publications in Kampala.

Therefore, if I ever did a museum of African history, I would go to UCT and ask them to let me have Cecil Rhodes’ statue. Hopefully, they will not have washed away the paint the students splashed it on as that also adds to its richness. If they can’t find a place to keep it, I am happy to take it off their hands today.

For we must never forget that for the winners, war can never only be about the victory. Often the losses, the injuries, and reversals are the bigger story. 

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