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Consequences of being Cecil John Rhodes

UCT Rhodes must Fall

In confronting the historical spectre of Rhodes the youth of South Africa have revisited in a bold and vehement manner the unfinished business of deracialisation and decolonisation.  They are holding the post-apartheid state accountable. The issue now is, how is 350 years of exclusion and dispossession decisively addressed?

Against the background of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the University of Cape Town (UCT) must now contemplate the various meanings and shades of decolonisation which has been unfolding all over Africa for several decades. Decolonisation is a word the UCT establishment seems to fear or abhor beginning with the debates Mahmood Mamdani instigated concerning the Africanisation of the curricula in the institution during the 1990s when he was eventually compelled to leave.

Cecil Rhodes clearly does not fit above the crest of decolonisation because he was an arch-coloniser. It would appear that there are subtle manoeuvres to gently place Rhodes amid a decolonising milieu as a fairly benign historical icon, one that could be readily visited with indifference but certainly not derision or even worse, violence. He therefore cannot be allowed to loom as a colonially sanctioned symbol of indifference as powerful political undercurrents bearing despair, disenchantment and disbelief sizzle beneath him. UCT prided itself for being the foremost tertiary institution on the continent until it experienced a rude awakening amidst an unavoidable political turmoil from which it had initially distanced itself.
The universe of images (mundos imaginalis) according to even its original Hermetic understanding is directly linked to the mass production of desire. So what would be the meaning of Cecil Rhodes as an unambiguous object of desire? This is the question to which the students of UCT proffered an answer; an offensive anachronism in the insatiable quest for acceptable and easily digestible symbols of democracy and liberation.

The students agitating for a new political and intellectual order are only the grandchildren of the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other similar African intellectuals who have raised serious questions about the surviving colonial symbols of acculturation and mental subjugation. Words, images and pictures are not simply what they appear to be and are indeed very powerful in processes involving the formation and consolidation of subjectivity.

Just as language, images and symbols can be implements of unfathomable oppression and historical erasure and distortion. They linger in our ordinary lives, dreams and most especially, our nightmares. In ancient times, images, sculptures and statues were believed to give off emanations that existed beyond and independent of themselves. They weren’t just regarded as simply images, sculptures and statues. As such, they were deemed to carry implications and causal effects that did not always directly emanate from themselves. It would be a most anti-intellectual as well as insidious stance to attempt to ignore the meaning of Cecil Rhodes in the context of an unsurprisingly problematic decolonising South Africa.

Giordano Bruno’s work on image-magic is quite instructive here. Bruno had famously declared in his De Magia that it was easier to entrance a million people than it is to enrapture a single person. An image works on the subconscious in influencing the entirety of consciousness, leading to the powerful awakening of desire, not unusually, collective desire. Advertising practices work in a similar manner in informing the form and content of consciousness merely by the adept manipulation of images. The replication of such imagery of desire isn’t often meant to satiate it but to promote a seemingly ceaseless suspension of its immediate gratification. It is an anti-climactic consumerist ploy that mirrors and reinforces the capitalist ethic of the spectral production of desire together with its endless deferral.

The statue of Rhodes stands for a certain (or perhaps uncertain) number of symbolic representations. A reactionary mind would choose to cloak Rhodes with apathy in order to mitigate what he represents in history. Such a mind would want to prevent a critical interrogation of what he stood for so as to ignore or becloud the history of violence that trails him. Invariably, such a stance would entail an enforcement of a disconnect with history, an inducement of amnesia, so as to mask a fundamental truth of history together with its enduring legacy of violence.

The image of Rhodes has evidently failed to enchant millions and is the cause of hate, disaffection and violence. It clearly does not possess theurgic attributes. In contemporary South Africa, Rhodes has not been able to produce desire or its subjects and so one is forced to ask, what is his value in relation to the imperatives of capital? In both political and historical terms he has become more of an encumbrance than an asset which is why he is being banished to the lower strata of South African history.

At this juncture, Rhodes is only able to generate disaffection and intolerance and whatever value he possesses currently is ultimately tarnished by his rabid colonialist temperament and accomplishments that conflict with an age desirous of resonant heroes. To be sure, he was markedly a man of his age – and perhaps in some respects, he cannot be blamed for it – in ways that remain fundamental but he failed to transcend it in way that this epoch considers crucial. The failure to transcend his age is what he must now suffer for. To be a true hero, an individual must possess the ability to find resonance beyond his or her times.

The previous silence around Rhodes constituted a refusal of history together with its dynamics and their power to reconfigure the present. The silence around the figure of Rhodes sought to enforce a disconnect between a newly decolonised people (in formal terms) and the multiple ramifications of their history as well as the possibilities for defining their identities within the present. Clearly, the silence built around Rhodes camouflaged the putrescence of a wound that has yet to heal; and so two issues remain unsolved: an uncomfortable metaphoric and literal silence and a severe collective injury.

The cosmetic appeal of the South African Truth and Reconciliation process isn’t deep enough or appropriate for dealing with the festering and progressively worsening sores of history. A moral simplicism that avoids asking probing questions and seeking other radical methods of appeasement might be appropriate for superficial short term results but certainly isn’t appropriate for the pursuit, scrutiny and assimilation of truth which ironically contradicts the actual outcome and impact of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Such often desperate political expediency never bodes well for long term gains.

The youth of UCT and other institutions plagued by the same problems are galvanised by a quest to unravel the realities of the truths regarding their past no matter how unpalatable and Rhodes was the most obvious point at which to begin. Their relatively privileged position in South Africa’s supposedly best institution could not shield them from the discomforts of their present circumstances and the disconcerting silence they had been forced to endure. They posed the very questions that nagged adults but who lacked the gumption to interrogate and articulate them in a meaningful and radical manner.

Once again, the youth of the nation – in less tumultuous fashion than the Soweto children of 1976 – have created a revolutionary moment beginning from below and away from the established sectors of the nation and state which are invariably too lackadaisical or too conservative to confront the imperatives and challenges of radical transformation. The youth have succeeded in shaking the nation, awakening it from its contented slumber; an undoubtedly laborious task requiring considerable resources of courage and drive. Indeed the nation should be grateful to them.  It is now incumbent upon the nation to seize the momentum and re-define itself against its decaying and disagreeable parts.

Thando Mgqolozana, a young South African author, recently decried the fact that South African literary festivals are largely white dominated thereby misrepresenting or ignoring the demographics of the country. But even more significantly, it should be pointed out that the South African literary scene is a barely visible appendage of contemporary western literary culture. The scene also reflects the inheritance and retention of a lopsided apartheid-era literary preoccupation and infrastructure. As Ben Williams, the former Books Editor of the Sunday Times points out, this literary infrastructure includes what he terms “the white publishers, distributors, booksellers and editors”. It ought to be the case that a Black literary infrastructure is emerging but it is not yet established enough to accommodate the huge Black population.

The direction of Mgqolozana’s anger and frustration is also noteworthy – the white South African literary establishment. Williams agrees that a transformation of the dominant literary infrastructure is necessary to support the project of decolonisation but his position and Mgqolozana’s demonstrate what has always been obvious and historically visible: decolonisation has multiple angles and imperatives. It is possible that a

black literary infrastructure can be developed independent of the existing structures not so much as to demolish them but to act as a contrast and reflect the diversity of the literary cultures within the country. As Williams suggests, the digital age makes the outcome of such a task a little less predictable but it does indicate a broader range of alternatives available for a decolonising project. Mgqolozana’s poses the kind of questions the students of UCT posed, at certain crucial intervals, in a much more succinct and brusque manner.

In the case of UCT and other institutions in a similar position, the situation is slightly more complex as the institutions to be transformed are far more entrenched and perhaps also more intractable. It isn’t merely about the materiality of the institutions themselves but also the hegemony of the ideologies that inform as well as underpin them. An onslaught against them is likely to elicit stubborn resistance, the violence of which can lead to an unrecognisable transformation of the institutions: an act that the entrenched orders of power will most probably consider a measure of random, anti-bureaucratic violence with the resultant backlash. This is a scenario that requires the most apposite template of reconciliation to tackle it.

It also requires the transcendence of the apparent either/or dichotomy- which is sadly a defining hallmark of contemporary racial relations – in order to embrace its latent heterogeneity. Undoubtedly, it would necessitate the casting off of old skin to don a new one; a process that is akin to bricolage, metissage and the most intriguing practices of creolisation. It is difficult to think of a more elegant way to frame it. But a situation in which students of a particular institution feel racially and socially excluded not only in terms of institutional participation but also with regards to the kind of knowledge they are equipped with, is not tenable.

In addition, the disruptions at UCT have posed the stark question: what orders of knowledge are being produced at the institution and what are the supporting ideologies in which they are couched? Protestations attesting to the objectivity of science provide only cold comfort. There are always unresolved grey areas around constructs of knowledge and that is where the battles need to be waged. The relevance of the knowledge generating process would increase exponentially when the Black South African subject becomes a participant in that process rather than being merely its object.

In confronting the historical spectre of Rhodes the youth of South Africa have revisited in a bold and vehement manner the unfinished business of deracialisation and decolonisation.  They have also gone ahead to hold the post-apartheid state accountable. The issue now centres on how is 350 years of exclusion and dispossession decisively addressed? It borders on “taking back what was wrongfully taken from us”, which translates to free education at tertiary levels. Indeed there is a direct link between the #RhodesMustFall movement and the #FeesMustFall campaign which is currently raging on the campuses of South African universities and the wider society at large.

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