from Africa in Transition

Is Rhodes’ Statue Removal Setting a Bad Precedent?

April 15, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by John Causey, a private equity practitioner with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa transactions.

On April 9, the University of Cape Town (UCT) removed the statue on its main campus of Cecil John Rhodes, one of the most important and contentious historical figures in Southern Africa’s history. This is not the first statue or name changing controversy in South Africa’s modern history.

Who was Cecil John Rhodes?

At his death, Rhodes was one of the richest men in the world. He amassed his incredible wealth from scratch and in a relatively short period of time. In addition to founding De Beers diamond mining and trading company in Kimberly, he was the seventh Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Rhodes is directly and indirectly responsible for many development projects in Southern Africa, and in his estate bequeathed land for Kirstenbosch Gardens and the land on which UCT now sits. His sizable estate continues to fund numerous worthwhile initiatives, including the prestigious Rhodes scholarship.

Given Rhodes remarkable achievements, why the controversy?

A common refrain describes Rhodes as a colonizer, English imperialist, and oppressor of the black African population. This refrain is based in truth. The protestors are disturbed by the statue and say it is a reminder of unpleasant aspects of South Africa’s history. Their call for its removal was embraced by Max Price, UCT’s Vice Chancellor, who apparently led the charge on this matter for the administration. Seeking the middle road, he successfully advocated its removal and eventual relocation. The protests went on for weeks with varying degrees of civility.

The protestors and UCT administrators achieved their aims with virtually no resistance. Although the status quo easily won the day, here are three lines of defense for maintaining the statue which were faintly mumbled in some quiet corners of the country.

First, Rhodes should be appreciated as an important historical figure. Academics in Zimbabwe have not opted to adopt UCT’s approach to dealing with Rhodes’ legacy in Zimbabwe, and Robert Mugabe’s administration has actively blocked attempts to remove Rhodes’ remains from the Matopos Hills just outside Bulawayo in Matabeleland. Robert Mugabe is no advocate for the white African, yet he and other Zimbabweans show that there are more subtle ways to deal with uncomfortable historical events and figures.

Second, no transformative figure in history is without fault and it’s not fair to view their deeds in isolation. Gandhi had a disdain of the black race and in particular black South Africans, Mandela was labeled a terrorist and had a proclivity towards communism, George Washington was a slaveholder, and Shaka Zulu brutally attacked the Xhosa and other peoples to name a few examples. It’s possible to be worthy of a statue without being perfect.

Third, UCT’s actions aren’t occurring in isolation and will set a precedent. As the BBC asks, what if a future government wanted to knock down statues of Nelson Mandela? Already in April protests have ensued around a prominent statue of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town, a monument in Port Elizabeth to honor fallen horses and mules in the Second Boer War has been vandalized, and in Johannesburg a statue of Mahatma Gandhi has been defaced by a group calling for its removal.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

Zimbabwe

Heads of State and Government

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