As a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), I often walked past the statue of Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902) on my way to classes. Standing in the way of anyone approaching the university, it was a reminder of the debt UCT owed (and owes) to colonialism.
A short hike above the University is the Rhodes Memorial. From the memorial one can view the mountainous, African horizon beyond the Cape Flats. The statue at the University shows Rhodes in contemplation. The statue at the memorial has Rhodes on a horse, tensed and ready to spring. Both look to the north and to the east, setting in stone the Victorian dream of a unified, British Africa from Cape to Cairo.
Rhodes and UCT are intertwined both in memory and monument. The university, which stands on land donated by Rhodes, has struggled with the question of transformation since the 1990s. And the statue has remained until very recently.
This past March a black student poured a bucket of human feces over it, an angry act of protest which sparked a remarkable campaign among students and staff. Rallied by the hashtag #rhodesmustfall, further actions followed, including the peaceful occupation of the Bremner administrative building (renamed Azania House) by students.
The campus polarized between black and white students, though some white students also spoke in favour of removing the statue. At one of the public forums held in the vicinity of the statue, a student spoke for many in declaring that the name of Rhodes be permanently blotted from South African history.
The movement saw the statue as a disturbing reminder of the colonial captivity of the university. The failure of the university to take action made Rhodes a focal point.
After nearly a month of protest the administration decided to remove the statue, acknowledging the importance of the debate around symbols on campus and the depth of student feeling about this particular instance, but also the need to preserve the statue as university property. Beyond the question of property, it got me thinking about whether, how, and why we preserve the past.
The name of Cecil Rhodes is associated with many sites in Southern Africa, including Rhodes University in Grahamstown, some 750 kilometers to the east. Also in Grahamstown stands the beautiful, neo-Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George. The cathedral is deeply linked to the history of the local community, containing a monument to Lt. Col. John Graham (1778–1821), who secured the site as a beachhead of British influence and after whom the town is named.
It also actively participates in what the town is currently best known for: the largest annual arts festival in Africa. When I last visited the cathedral I attended a wonderful marimba mass that reminded me of the vibrant African appropriation of what used to be called The Church of England. What would Rhodes, himself the son of an English vicar, have thought?
While the Eastern Cape saw considerable missionary activity in the nineteenth century, including the establishment of schools that educated the first generations of African nationalists, early settler Christianity in the region served as a marker of difference between white immigrants and the indigenous Xhosa people. And during the mid-nineteenth century frontier wars the cathedral sheltered settler families inside the walls while the conflict raged outside.
After the wars marble plaques were set into the cathedral’s stonework as public monuments. Inscribed on them are the names of soldiers on the British side who served, died, or otherwise performed heroically during the wars.
Despite the growing Africanization of the congregation during the twentieth century, no memorials have been erected for the Xhosa warriors who served, died, or otherwise performed heroically defending their land against the red-coated invaders.
As South Africa was beginning its remarkable (if as yet unfinished) transition to democratic rule, a debate broke out within the cathedral membership. Not only did the memorials disturb the memory of worshippers confessing to be one body in Christ, their representations of black South Africans used deeply offensive, “othering” language.
Against those arguing for their removal, some countered that the past is the past, and that removing the memorials would dishonour the history of the cathedral. The debate polarized the congregation. To keep the peace it was decided to glue marble blocks over the offending terms. Thus history was, and remains, visibly obscured.
The ongoing presence of colonial symbols has exacerbated frustration in South Africa about the slowness of transformation. They represent a focal point for protest in a society dealing with multiple problems, from government corruption to failing infrastructure.
They also provide a welcome distraction for the political elites to exploit, and feed the scapegoating mentality that is of a piece with xenophobia. In the wake of “Rhodes must fall”, other memorials to European figures across the country have been vandalized. So was a statue of Mahatma Gandhi near the Johannesburg buildings where he practiced law, ostensibly because Gandhi’s memoirs contain the same word now blocked in the cathedral memorials.
The question of dealing with the past has been at the forefront of South Africa’s democratic transformation. It was embodied for the world in her Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But that was nearly 20 years ago, and the effects of the past remain.
Can the injustice of the past be erased by removing, or desecrating, monuments? Can the fissures colonialism opened in South Africa be healed by the blotting of a name (or a designation)? If offensive names and terms are simply removed along with other visible representations, how then will their legacy be confronted?
Reconciliation cannot be signaled simply in the renaming of buildings, of streets, of cities. While there is something to be said for symbolic gestures (and Nelson Mandela was an unparalleled master of the symbolic gesture), the replacement of the old heroes of a previous citizenry by the names of the new heroes of an aspirationally new society does not transformation make.
Indeed, it may well act as a cover for new elites who benefit from the capitalism entrenched by Rhodes and others.
There is a third option besides preservation or removal. Recalling the transformation of the old Braamfontein jail (whose prisoners have included Gandhi and Mandela, Tambo and Slovo) into the present Constitutional Court, Justice Albie Sachs suggests the placing of new symbols alongside the old allows the tensive dissonance to create new interpretations of the past in relation to the present.
If the bricks from that place of profound human rights abuses could be used to build a structure that is mandated never again to allow such abuses to take place, why can’t the same thing happen as new monuments are set alongside the old ones? Something like this has already happened with the famous scholarship Cecil Rhodes lent his name to.
Now called The Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship it is awarded, doubtless contrary to the spirit of Rhodes’ bequest, to black as well as white South Africans. Such an act opens space for a re-narration of South Africa’s history, for the production of new stories which make sense of the striking juxtapositions.
Which brings us back to the cathedral. The marks of colonialism inside that magnificent building are, theologically speaking, scars on the body of Christ. But it is precisely as such that they are taken up into the confessional history of the church Catholic. Marimba masses take place in the presence of marble monuments, or should that be vice-versa? Sir John Graham’s monument may be turned away from the view of the congregation, but even with back turned he is still present.
The fact that the offending words on the plaques are visibly blocked serves not to hide, but to draw attention to the past, and to the need for constant repentance. For we have no idea what future generations will want blocked out.
This is the only possibility of life for the church: its bearing the marks of history as repentance both for itself and for the community within which it is planted. Perhaps this priestly catholic ministry, which itself exists in tension with prophetic “protestant” iconoclasm, marks the church’s difference from other institutions (like universities) concerned with self-preservation.
For it looks ahead to the day when genuinely new names and lasting monuments (Rev. 2:17, 3:12) will be bestowed by God. That day, the day when human history is seen whole, is still to come.
Stephen Martin is associate professor of theology at The King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Faith Negotiating Loyalties: An Exploration of South African Christianity Through a Reading of the Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008). He has also served as guest editor of a special edition of The Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, March 2011. The articles represented papers given at a special conference on “Tradition and Transformation”, Stellenbosch 2010.