University of Johannesburg: Cecil Rhodes’s legacy is crumbling but needs to be remembered

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently published the historical novella ‘The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes’ in the Business Day: 12 April 2021.

Cecil Rhodes set out to achieve immortality by leaving a 4,000-year legacy. His “cult” is still evidenced by 30 biographies, eight novels, six plays, and countless films and documentaries. Barely 120 years after his death, however, this legacy is now crumbling. As the greatest individual symbol of British imperialism, Rhodes’s memorials clearly need no longer occupy prominent places, as these constitute a permanent assault on the descendants of his black victims. However, it is also critical that Rhodes’s monuments not be totally erased. History should be preserved through memorials in museums and theme parks that properly contextualise the atrocities of such imperial figures.

Rhodes was a white supremacist who committed crimes against humanity. He dispossessed black people of their ancestral lands in contemporary Zimbabwe and Zambia – Southern and Northern Rhodesia – through aggressive and duplicitous means, killing an estimated 60,000 people, and stealing 3.5 million square miles of Southern African real estate. Rhodes’s mercenaries embarked on a savage scorched-earth policy: pillaging and raping; summarily executing black prisoners of war, stealing farm land and thousands of herds of cattle, and burning kraals.

In Rhodes’s hometown of Bishop’s Stortford, a community activist campaign successfully gathered over 4,000 signatures to change the name of the Rhodes Art complex to South Mill Arts last August. But a more effective memorialization might have been to rename the complex “The Rhodes Memorial of Imperialism,” and properly to contextualize his crimes against humanity for contemporary and future generations.

Rhodes dominates Oxford University more than almost any other figure. He left £100,000 (about R255 million today) in his will for Oriel College, where he studied. A statue was also built above the college on High Street, towering over memorials to George V and Edward VII. Rhodes House is one of the most grandiose buildings in Oxford. About 8,000 scholars – funded from Rhodes’s £3.3 million fortune (about R8.4 billion today) – have studied at Oxford since 1903, in a scheme that excluded women until 1977. The scholarships were clearly designed for white males: half of the Rhodes trustees today remain white men, while 90% of the scholarships have gone disproportionately to white Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Rhodesians.

From 2015, student-led protesters sought to topple Rhodes’s statue at Oriel. After five years of sporadic agitation, and in the wake of the global “Black Lives Matter” movement, the college finally agreed to remove the statue, in principle, in 2020. The memorial is due to be moved into a museum by this summer, though Britain’s communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, has launched a legal bid to prevent the removal of such statues.

Rhodes University in Makhanda was founded with funding from the Oxford-based Rhodes Trust in 1904, and still stubbornly bears the name of its benefactor. Rhodes students have recently agitated for a change in the name of the university, a reform of its institutional culture, and curriculum transformation. The University of Cape Town (UCT) moved to Rhodes’s Groote Schuur estate in 1928. Like Rhodes University, UCT was slow to admit black students, accepting only 40 by 1937, and figures remained low into the 1980s. Like Rhodes, UCT also practised social segregation against black students and workers on campus, colluding with, and caving in to, the apartheid government’s segregationist policies. UCT students eventually toppled a statue of Rhodes in April 2015 in a bid to “decolonize” the institution. Last July, the statue of Rhodes in the Memorial within the UCT campus was decapitated.

Finally, the controversial co-joining of Cecil Rhodes and Nelson Mandela under the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2003 continues to confound many. While Rhodes was the greatest imperialist of the nineteenth century, Mandela was one of the greatest liberation heroes of the twentieth. History will doubtless be much kinder to Mandela’s nation-building than to Rhodes’s empire-building.

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