From Cecil Rhodes to Mahatma Gandhi: why is South Africa tearing its statues down?

Removing symbols of the past is an ineffective form of protest.

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There is plenty to worry about in South Africa.

The apparently endless power cuts have – says the World Bank – had “very severe” implications for the country’s growth. Plans to purchase three brand new jets to fly President Zuma and his entourage around have come in for scathing opposition criticism.

And – most worrying of all – remarks by the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, calling for African immigrants to “pack up and go home” has led to a wave of xenophobic attacks. These have become so severe that Malawi has now decided to repatriate its citizens, who are living in fear of their lives.

Yet the South African media has been dominated by another issue entirely. It is the battle of the statues.

It all began when Chumani Maxwele, a student at the University of Cape Town, flung a bucket of human excrement at a statue on the grounds of the university. The statue of Cecil Rhodes, sitting, head in hand, looked out over the rugby grounds. “As black students we are disgusted by the fact that this statue still stands here today as it is a symbol of white supremacy,” argued Maxwele.

Cecil Rhodes, (1853-1902) was the supreme imperialist. A mining magnate who made a fortune from South Africa’s diamonds, dreamed of a British empire from the Cape to Cairo. It was his private initiative that led to the conquest of Zimbabwe. He planned a raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal republic, which was a precursor to the Anglo-Boer war.

With the slogan “#RhodesMustFall” the UCT students demanded that the statue be removed. It was, they argued, part of a programme to “decolonise education” and bring “racial transformation” to their university. “All Rhodes lead to the colonisation of the mind”, read one of their banners.

The first incident, which took place in early March, was followed by events that convulsed the university. The administration block was occupied by Maxwele’s supporters. Demonstrations became a daily event. When Dr Azila Talit Reisenberger, head of the Hebrew Department, remonstrated with noisy students, her poster “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument,” was ripped from her hands.

Although the campus did not descend into violence, there have been bitter confrontations between black and white students. Academics say they only just prevented a riot on perhaps three separate occasions.

When the university council met to decide what to do, students demanding the removal of the statue entered the room. “Down with white supremacy!” the students chanted. Then they took up: “One settler, one bullet,” complete with machine-gun sound effects.

The Council chairman, former Anglican archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, tried to reason with the protesters. But they refused to leave the room, shouting “Vote, vote!”

Finally the Council caved in.  The statue was removed for safekeeping, until the government can decide its future.

But the story does not end there.

The Rhodes statue was just the first to be attacked. Now statues across South Africa have been vandalised, set alight and daubed in paint. Everyone from Queen Victoria to Paul Kruger have been targeted.

Even Gandhi has not been immune, with protesters suggesting (incorrectly) that the Mahatma remained a racist until the end of his time in South Africa.

These attacks are the latest stage in a cultural war that has been under way for some time. Since the end of apartheid many relics of the past have been removed – although many more remain.

During the debate at the University of Cape Town voices were raised suggesting that an alternative should be found to this erasing of monuments. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter, the Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu, proposed that another statue should be commissioned to stand alongside Rhodes.

It would commemorate the work of Graça Machel, the chancellor of the university and Nelson Mandela’s wife. But the Reverend Tutu’s voice was drowned out.

There are now fears that the whole episode will inflict long-lasting damage on the university’s reputation.  The quality of open debate and free discussion could become increasingly difficult, with threats of further demonstrations if “colonialist” or “reactionary” views are taught – particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

But underlying these protests are real issues. Despite strenuous efforts and giving black students preferential access, the University of Cape Town still reflects the imprint of half a century of apartheid and three centuries of colonialism. South Africa’s best universities are still predominantly populated by white students and most of the lecturers are still white.

Even more seriously, the country has failed to generate sufficient growth to soak up the millions in need of jobs. Unemployment stands officially at 24 per cent, with nearly five million people seeking employment. Unofficial estimates put the figures even higher.

Many young black men and women are seething with anger that their white compatriots still seem to reap most of the country’s benefits – more than 20 years after the end of apartheid. Removing the symbols of the past is one, rather ineffective, way of tackling the issue.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.