Philosophers employ what they call the principle of charity when critiquing arguments – it is basically a methodological presumption whereby we interpret the view in its strongest and best form. I ask that as we dialogue with one another that we employ this principle of charity. So forgive my shortcomings and biases in addressing such a sensitive issue, and where I have stumbled correct me as a fellow human being seeking to share his perspective.
Much has been seen said and debated and argued and critiqued about the fall of the Rhodes statue, however I feel there are still some deep misconceptions about the relevance of why Rhodes must fall, misconceptions I would like to try and clear up if at all possible.
The common misconception is that the removal of the statue is an attempt to wipe out history. This is false and to do so would be pure foolishness. We are a product of history – both good and bad, and the preservation of history is an essential part of South Africa. In fact it is precisely because of Rhode’s history that the statue had to fall. History is preserved in a number of different ways from books, to museums, to memorials, and orally. So those that are afraid of history being distorted can rest assured that in our information age history cannot be wiped out.
The question is why now? The statue has been there all along? Why is it only being noticed now? Perspectives change, different people emerge who begin to question their surroundings and why certain things are done in a certain way. It is precisely because of this ability of societies to change and question common held ideas that society progresses. It is precisely because of this ability that colonialism, apartheid, slavery, segregation once considered to be the natural order of the day were challenged and removed. So the argument that: the Rhodes statue has always been there even after 1994, if it wasn’t removed then surely it should remain now as well is weak. It implies structures and systems which have always been present should remain even if the environment has changed.
When I was thinking about the Rhodes statue the first question I asked myself was – what is the purpose of a public statue? Well simply put to honour an individual whom the community feels has embodied the ethos, character and ideals that the community hold as sacred. My next question was what ethos, ideals and values did Rhodes in his life pursue?
Well in his own words:
“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”
He considered the British race to be the most superior on earth, that the world would be a better place if controlled by the British. He was absolutely dedicated to British imperialism and supremacy. His Glen Grey Act initiated during his time as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony was a precursor to Apartheid. It severely restricted land for Africans and imposed a labour tax on Africans who could not prove they were employed effectively creating the migrant labour system to feed the mines. Another of his legacies was his acquisition of Zambia and Zimbabwe which came at the cost of thousands of Ndebele people slaughtered. This is what Rhodes stood for.
A second misconception is that seeing how the Rhodes statue is falling, then UCT, the Rhodes scholarship and all infrastructures he built should also be destroyed. However this is a slippery slope argument and fails to appreciate three important points. Firstly, public statues and universities serve different functions. There is no other use for a public statue besides being an aesthetic object and honouring an individual. If the statue could be used differently to add value to people’s lives then it would. Secondly, the whole fight against apartheid was for equality – for both black and white to sit at the table of brotherhood and both benefit from what the land has to offer. The fight was not against whites and destroying what was built, but for blacks to have the freedom to participate in the building on equal terms and not simply as a source of labour. There is absolutely nothing wrong with roads and universities. The issue was that the hands that the laid down the bricks were not allowed to set foot inside as scholars. Thirdly, regarding the funds that Rhodes donated from the wealth he had acquired- taking nothing from his business astuteness- in what type of political and legal framework were they obtained? Where they obtained in a milieu that did not exploit one race over another, did all people have the same privilege of being able to exploit business opportunities and amass wealth? Or was the system disproportionately unfavourable towards those of a darker shade?
Rhodes was neither the first nor the last; however he has come to symbolize the depravity and wretchedness of the systematic oppression of black people; the mind-set which sees other races as being inferior on the basis of their colour. And it is this ethos, which lurks in the remnants of the current social and economic order which ALL South Africans must have no tolerance for.
This is what puzzled me, how anyone could defend what Rhodes stood for? Who relates and aspires to the ethos that Rhodes strived for? Surely no one committed to a non-racial future. The fall of the statue, I am now more convinced than ever before, it had to fall. It represents the deconstruction of a social and economic order divided along racial lines and advocates for one where all races are on par. Transformation would not be required if our history was one of equal opportunity. The fall of the statue has shown me that we as South Africans (black and white) have a long struggle ahead of us, a struggle to accept our failures and successes as a collective rather than as races. From the crucibles of a divided and polarised history we must erect the new statues of an equal and inclusive future.