My Personal Views on the UCT Rhodes Issue

During my undergraduate years at the University at Cape Town, I  stayed in the prestigious Smuts Hall, with halls rich in tradition and  rooms with views of the city of Cape Town. 3 times a day, we used to  walk over the parking lot to Fuller Hall for mealtimes, passing the now  controversial statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

For most of my undergraduate years, I took no notice of it, and  thought of it as another decorative feature of the university campus,  such as World War memorial stone positioned behind it. On one occasion, I  stopped to read a board next to the statue, explaining the significance  of the person who was being celebrated and honoured by the statue. The  description mentioned how the posture of the sculptured Rhodes was  significant, as he was positioned looking into the interior of the  African continent, contemplating his dream of building a railway from  Cape to Cairo. The picture built of him was one of an explorer and a  statesman, without the controversy attached.

The next time I came across this figure was in 2013 when reading about the Jameson Raid in Max Du Preez‘s Of Trickster’s, Tyrants and Turncoats. It  was interesting how he was one of the forerunners of the Anglo-Boer war  in his desire for political and economic control. Soon after, I read  about the Rudd Concession, in which Lobengula, the second-last king of the Ndebele people was tricked into signing an agreement which gave Rhodes’ British South Africa Company exclusive mining rights to the region in which he was in control. While  reading other history books, I learnt about his belief in social  darwinism, which led him to hold the view that the British nation was  the most outstanding nation on this earth, and it was in the best  interest of the world for as much as it as possible to be under the  British crown. This was a large motivation in taking over large pieces  of land, despite the questionable profitability of some ventures. If  this was the entire picture of the historical narrative, then  conclusions would be easy.

The more one learns about history, the harder it is to draw simple  conclusions. It is difficult to walk in the shoes of a certain period of  history without tainting our narratives with the realities of today. A  simple example is the difficulty in thinking about the land on the  southern tip of the African continent without thinking about the  political entity now called South Africa, which only came about in 1910.  It is even more difficult thinking about the fluidity of the land and  political borders before the 1900s. The idea of using force to take land  was shared not only by those who arrived to the south of Africa by  ship, but also by those who arrived here by land. Shaka held this view  when expanding his kingdom and causing hordes of individuals and  families to flee. Mzilikazi also held this view when leaving Shaka’s  kingdom to form his new kingdom, and destroying all opposition along the  way. The Afrikaner Voortrekkers held this view when fighting against  the Zulu kingdom. The English held this view when fighting against the  various Xhosa tribes in the frontier wars. The Mfengu people also held  this view when fighting on the side of the British in some of these  frontier wars. From history, it is evident that taking land from others  was a universal phenomena, and not the trait of an individual group.

It is because of this that I find it hard to hold the oversimplified  narrative that ‘whites came and stole our land’. But that does n0t mean  that I think anyone was necessarily justified in taking someone else’s  land. If we hold the idea that individuals and their actions were just  products of their time, then there is no absolute anchor to hold the  rocking boat of times and seasons of relative morality. When we look at  our day, can we conclude that the rampant sex trafficking rings are just  products of the age? Can we easily say that corrupt governments who rob  the dignity of the poor within their jurisdictions are just the result  of the time they live in? There has to be an absolute measuring stick  with which we can measure both the past, and the present.

I hold to the absolute view that human beings are created in the  image of God, giving them infinite worth, and infinite value. A person  is no less than another based on their financial worth, intellect,  position on the human development index, or even morality. A person  should view themselves as having infinite worth, despite perceived  evidence otherwise. In the same way, a person needs to see other  individuals as having infinite worth, despite perceived evidence  otherwise, and proceed to treat them so. This breaks down the white  supremacist argument that ‘we came here with technology and  advancement’. Whether that is the case or not, it is irrelevant, because  we are all of infinite worth. It also breaks down the current pervasive  narrative of black moral superiority. The view of the infinite worth of  human individuals empowers them to act because of the worth they see in  themselves, and gives them the responsibility to correct injustices  because of how they view others.

And what does this have to do with the statue? The presence of a  statue is there to honour the individual depicted in it. Many people  would find it difficult to honour and celebrate an individual who would  debase their value, and conscript them to a place in society less than  their worth. What we seek to do is to build a nation from our broken  past in which all are treated with infinite value. It is hard to do so  with celebrated reminders of that broken past.

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