By Gareth Cliff



When he died, Cecil John Rhodes left some of his enormous wealth to found a prestigious scholarship. Part of his sprawling estate was given over to the establishment of the University of Cape Town and another part to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a less controversial but more beautiful legacy.

In recent years (in fact it was a question that arose when I visited UCT last year to give a lecture), the presence of a statue of Rhodes has become the focus of a vitriolic campaign against what certain people believe is an offensive monument to a wicked Imperialist who exploited Africans. The latter is obviously true, but then so was the story of King Shaka of the Zulu – who actually killed (sometimes by his own hand) so many Africans that he created anew the map of Eastern South Africa – chasing the Xhosa south and the Swazi north, bringing the disparate Zulu clans under his iron rule.

I like the fact that King Shaka has an airport named after him. That doesn’t mean I have to like King Shaka. Cecil John Rhodes may have been the most successful imperialist agent of Victorian Britain, but his contribution to history (let alone education) is unquestionable.

Take the Rhodes statue down, I don’t care. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I’m not a fan of Rhodes and I don’t doubt his politics were appalling. As a student of history, it offends me more to see any modern human being let their feelings (however genuine and serious) attempt to cleanse bloody, ugly history of its veracity. I felt the same when they pulled down Saddam’s statue and when they removed Stalin’s body from Red Square. You can’t change the present by whitewashing the past – it’s like a child putting a plaster on a wound.

It is a hollow victory to defeat those already dead. Rhodes doesn’t care; the French monarchs whose tombs were desecrated by revolutionaries didn’t care and the bones of dead people in unmarked graves are no more troubled by the events of the present than the revered bones of saints. Those doing the desecration however, seldom end up making history themselves. The only way to beat a bad person is to leave your own legacy which makes their legacy look bad.

People are a product of the time in which they live. We can’t judge a person who died a hundred years ago by the enlightened thought and sensitivity of the present. I’m sure people in a hundred years’ time will laugh at our attempts at ascribing value to things we hold dear today but which will be laughable in an age of bionics, interconnectivity and super-technology.

Washington, Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson kept slaves – and yet gave us the Declaration of Independence and birth of modern democracy. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater and destroy every monument, memorial and building named after them because they did what all men of their time did? I don’t think you’d find one American prepared to start. You can’t cherry pick the qualities of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person in a historical sense by using your own or even a modern set of parameters. By those standards, every human prior to at least the 1700s was at best a barbarian and certainly all the greatest men and women of history are nothing but despots and greedy slave-owners.

How are we to claim the Pyramids, The Acropolis, The Forum, the Great Wall of China, and Great Zimbabwe as part of our human story if we pretend they weren’t built by the sweat of slaves and the grinding oppression of the slaveowners? To hide the statues and spare a generation three times removed from the event is to do those sufferers an injustice. If a statue hurts you that much, you’re giving too much power to the statue.

We have an opportunity to build new legacies, create new scholarships, enhance our world and add to a horrible history by making a better future. Where are the new universities Blade Nzimande promised?

This morning I had a Rhodes scholar on my show – Eusebius McKaiser – a man I respect and admire. I like disagreeing with him and I love seeing him debate and deconstruct bad ideas and positions. Though he has an intelligence that doubtless would have come to the fore without it, he is proud to have been a Rhodes scholar. I’m sure he doesn’t have much love for the man who founded the scholarship and didn’t care a damn about his (Eusebius’s) ancestors, but that is immaterial. Perhaps Rhodes left this legacy because he felt guilty? Who knows? All I know is that you can never win an argument by emptying human turds on a statue – and you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to figure that out.


This column first appeared on on 19 March 2015.


A Historical Perspective


    • Ben Tonkin

      Unlikely that those students would understand. Would be interesting to see how many actually complete their degrees.

    • Hatitye chindove

      This is not a simple story of the Rhodes statue. Symbolism is the greater factor here. I read the history and at first shared the same view as you but after attending some of these debates and hearing what some of the academics who have been around for a while you will get their point of view. If you are interested in some of the views read the VC’s letter in this link.

      Also I would suggest with people on the ground and get their point of view and make an unbiased conclusion to this matter. This debate has been around for longer than what a lot of people know.

  • Kyle

    I don’t hold much value in an article written by someone who claims to be “a student of history”. Yet, declares the USA the “birth[place] of modern democracy” – it was the Greeks, more specifically Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Although the USA is a perfect example of how history is written by the victors. Ever wondered why there are no statues or few heritage/holy sites for Native Americans? Or why there is no media coverage of what happens on the ‘reservations’ where they live? So perhaps he may want to revisit his argument stating – “…I don’t think you’d find one American prepared to start.” Perhaps the reason is simple why Cliff can’t find any, there is are too few Native Americans left to object (after that genocide no one talks about, unless it’s a move with a white hero). Not to say the entire article hinges on his poor choice in example. To paraphrase another Greek, Heraclitus “The only change is constant”. Countries are constantly re-writing history, why not South Africa? Yes, the contributions of this particular colonialist (good and bad) can not be undone by words. This doesn’t mean we have to celebrate “the curse of Southern Africa” (to quote Paul Kruger) by keeping his statue in a prominent position. Lastly, can nobody else see the pot calling the kettle black, as a self-proclaimed “shock-jock” he fully understands how the shock-value of “throwing turds” grabs attention. In this 21st Century, when last did anyone share a story that was peaceful and diplomatic? The saddest part of this whole thing, is that now the TV shows are going to invite him to debate on behalf of the privileged white English-speaking community (like myself). All the while perpetuating a view, not shared by those of us who have bothered to read a bit deeper into it than one Gareth Cliff blog-post / radio interview.

  • steve

    Dear Gareth.

    i agree with your argument partially. There is honesty and a good conveyance of the confidence in your logical flow path.

    i only cite a very important error when you compare Shaka Zulu to Rhodes…really?… are you seriously going to compare institutionalized racism to war and its constituencies? and then justify Rhodes actions by saying men of his time acted so because it was a norm?…

    i think that reasoning shows a very poor factual basis, especially when you talk about the pyramids, which you claim were built by salves and slave owners- i don’t suppose you believe that the Egyptians of that time- Black Africans- acted on institutionalized racism towards their own kind… i think we can both agree that, that is totally nonsensical.

    please be advised, im not here to rattle your cage, pick a fight or even attempt to show you how little (i think ) you know about Black African History and education…

    im merely trying to show you that as futile as you may think a statue is, and how you think future generations will laugh at our current actions, please bare in mind that a statue is a symbol of deep rooted heritage inter alia… there’s more to a statue than just a work of art…

    yes he contributed to south Africa’s systematic education, but have we ever as Africans acclaimed African institutions? i guess that’s a topic for another day….
    in closing, i urge you to understand, or at least try to see, where people are coming from… its not about people ignoring the “good” he did…its about us as a country trying to move forward by redressing the mistakes of the past. Racism is still among-st us post 1994, economic emancipation is still a dream deferred as the minority control the majority of the country’s assets and resources,while the illusion of power is showcased through political freedom… we have a long way to go, but we must still address the emotional, and psychological baggage that has been bestowed upon us due to the institutionalized systematic irrational disorder that Rhodes and others alike brought to our mother land…. again this is just my opinion, just as you expressed yours.

  • Roger

    Right now the Gates foundation and others – :

    “Gates, USAID and Deloitte study ways to commercialise early generation seed production

    To this end, BMGF and USAID commissioned US strategy consulting firm Monitor-Deloitte to identify private business opportunities in EGS production. The study was conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia on maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato.

    BMGF and USAID have handpicked an elite group to meet behind closed doors in London in March 2015 to discuss the consultant’s report and to strategise on how to open up another front in the battle to turn African seed into a profit-making venture for MNCs.

    What is remarkable about this meeting is that there are very few Africans present. Those who are there mostly represent private sector interests, including seed companies and traders’ associations.

    There are no farmer representatives.

    This raises serious concerns about the transparency and accountability of these processes. The image of colonial robber barons meeting in secret to carve up the African continent arises unbidden in the mind.”

    meanwhile… the ‘educated’ are expending their energy on “statue of Rhodes has become the focus of a vitriolic campaign against what certain people believe is an offensive monument to a wicked Imperialist who exploited Africans”

    while the very heritage in the diversity of seed in Africa is under threat of being controlled by COMESA Harmonised Seed Trade Regulations agreed last year in Kinshasa.

    Now that is ‘exploitation of Africans’ of a scale that leaves what Rhodes did as being somewhere equal to …

    Are there any people at any university showing any concern / action in the face of this? – because when graduating it will be you that will be facing the future and food supply – statues, either standing or demolished, won’t be putting food on plates

  • Karol Joszkowski

    Our neighbors to the north have join the ruckus demanding once again that Cecil’s remains be removed from his resting place. Ironically they were told once again to shut up because it brings thousands of tourists and with them their cash.

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