For those who haven’t come across it, some of the students at University of Cape Town have recently taken offence, on grounds which are blatantly racist however much they may deny it, at the fact that a statue of a seated figure of Cecil John Rhodes dominates the entrance. Ignoring the fact that he was a towering figure in the history of the period, they want him removed (and replaced, no doubt, with another ‘Hero of the Struggle’). They accuse him of having been disparaging to those of local ethnicity, and of having caused the deaths of many, and maintain that tracts of land donated and scholarships created by him during his lifetime were selfishly towards preserving his own immortality and should not count in his favour.
Instead of spanking their backsides and telling them to study history a bit more assiduously, the university has agreed that the famous memorial will come down.
Surprisingly, the views on which demands are based are supported by many of the academics who are probably of colonialist descent themselves. Members of the oh-so-stupidly-PC brigade, no doubt. Also surprisingly, historians have responded to arguments that he was a good deal less disgusting in habits and attitudes than, for example, Shaka, with lame claims that the cases are not the same and that Shaka has the saving grace of having unified the Nguni people – this is very debatable. In fact Shaka chased many north, and others into becoming allied with the white settlers. He also bumped off significant numbers. I don’t know of any scholarships he left, either. Nevertheless, he was certainly a major figure in the history of his time, and I have no problem with him being remembered and commemorated.
I have a major problem, however, with the idea of tampering with or destroying things which are part of the history of the country, and renaming streets, buildings and places with the names of people whose accomplishments simply pale to insignificance by comparison with either the persons they replace or those who did the original naming. The new nominees often achieved little more than loudly supporting a cause, and perhaps causing some damage in opposing the other one. There is no justification for using them to replace someone whose efforts added a lasting benefit for the whole community. It is also a form of theft. Surely the creator of something has the right to have it named after them, or to have the name they chose to be respected and maintained?
This antipathy to colonialists is also inexplicable – it has to be fed by ignorance and misinformation. Everyone pussyfoots round the incontrovertible facts. The colonialists came – as people with mistaken ideas by today’s standards, certainly – but with vastly greater progress into technology, learning, arts and culture than the local races they encountered. To them, these locals were nothing more than savages. And savages they would undoubtedly have remained for a considerable time to come, except that the colonialists lifted them by the bootstraps of their non-existent boots to propel them into a greatly advanced state of evolution. For this, and the sophisticated infrastructure which evolved due to the efforts and enterprise of the colonialists – and without which would not have done so! – one would think that a mature society would be ready, willing and able to concede their place in local history.
The apartheid era was born of the conviction that it was not possible for evolutionary acceleration to take place, and that local races should be left to progress separately towards advancement. The greatest evils of apartheid came after it had been demonstrated that the local races could, indeed, progress at a considerable rate – and then it was tried, by force, to stop them from doing so.
Having said which, many of the actions of government over the past decade make it seem that they are quite determined to prove that the original theory was right. The reasons are not, I believe, that the indigenous people are incapable – just that the voters are misguided regarding the basis on which they choose their leaders, resulting in some of the least suitable persons ending up in charge. Understandably, they make a muck of it.