Over the last three weeks, students, lecturers and workers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been demanding that management remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes – a 19th century British colonialist whose destructive imperialist legacy is still remembered across much of Southern Africa to this day. However, the issues that have been brought up by the students in the wake of the campaign are much broader and more far-reaching than the mere removal of a statue. The "Rhodes Must Fall Campaign", which was started by a handful of students, has mushroomed into a furious country-wide debate over the need for radical change.
The protest against the statue gained media attention when a student threw human waste at the statue. This action drew indignation from some petty-bourgeois commentators, but students began to support the protest more and more. As the demonstrations grew larger, the UCT Student Representative Council were compelled to put their full weight behind the growing "Rhodes Must Fall" movement. This served to propel the momentum of the protest even more. Mass assemblies were organised on the campus of the university. Students, workers and academics were locked in heated discussions, and a variety of views were expressed with every idea put to the test, including those of Marx, Steve Biko and Thomas Sankara.
Suddenly the management of UCT was forced to listen to the demands of the "Rhodes Must Fall" movement. Out of desperation, the hapless vice-chancellor, Max Price, told students he was in favour of the student's demand for the removal of the statue but that the final decision can only be made by the council of the university management. This attempt to pacify the growing movement backfired. Instead, students started to occupy the Brenmar building on 20 March and renamed it Azania House.
Meanwhile, workers at the university and some lecturers also gave support for the protests. Within days demonstrations also broke out at other higher institutions of learning including at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, which carries the name of Cecil John Rhodes. In Kimberley, of the Northern Cape province, which for a long time hosted the headquarters for the giant diamond company De Beers Consolidated Mines (founded by Rhodes) calls were also made to remove symbols of Rhodes. At the University of Kwazulu-Natal, a statue of the former British King George V was also defaced. Heated discussions erupted in Wits University. The campaign has had an electrifying effect on students across the country. Even in Zimbabwe, where Rhodes is buried, there was talk of exhuming his mortal remains and sending them back to Britain.
As a direct result of the occupation and militant struggles of the students, the senate of the university has voted overwhelmingly for the removal of the statue. This decision is now expected to be ratified by the council in two weeks time.
Rhodes as a metaphor
The pundits in the media have grossly oversimplified and even trivialised the demands of the students. For these people, the issue is confined to the very narrow limits of ‘’cultural symbolism’’. This is no accident. The majority of these learned people, one way or another, are defenders of the status quo. Typically these are the same people who for many years have benefitted from the famous Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford where they were welcomed by the elite with open arms.
But the students at UCT and other universities are far ahead from these ‘’experts’’. On 11 March, the Student Representative Council released a statement which clearly set out the position of the students:
‘’Rhodes has been praised for donating this land to the university, building the economy and bringing ‘civilisation’ to this country. But for the majority of South Africans, this is a false narrative: how can a coloniser donate land that was never his land in the first place? Rhodes introduced the first racial policies of this country … which allowed for black people to be utilised as cheap exploited labour in the mines owned by him … The statue is a reminder for many black students of the position in society black people have occupied due to hundreds of years of apartheid, racism, oppression and colonialism."
The mission statement of the ‘’UCT Rhodes Must Fall’’ movement echoes these sentiments:
‘’We want to be clear that this movement is not just concerned with the removal of a statue. The statue has great symbolic power; it glorifies a mass-murderer who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people. Its presence erases black history and is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff – by “black” we refer to all people of colour. The statue was therefore the natural starting point of this movement. Its removal will not mark the end but the beginning of the long overdue process of decolonising this university. In our belief, the experiences seeking to be addressed by this movement are not unique to an elite institution such as UCT, but rather reflect broader dynamics of a racist and patriarchal society that has remained unchanged since the end of formal apartheid.’’
These statements goes to the heart of the matter. In essence, this is a call for fundamental change, and the fact that it involves the figure of Cecil John Rhodes is what makes it such an emotive issue.
Who was Cecil John Rhodes?
Cecil John Rhodes was not just any other historical figure, he was in fact a founder of South African capitalism. He was the founder of De Beers Consolidated Mines, the giant diamond monopoly, a gold baron, and a profiteer from many other companies and monopolies such as the British South Africa Company. In his time he controlled almost all of the world’s diamonds and much of its gold making him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Rhodes was also an arch colonialist and imperialist He expressed his capitalist and imperialist aims very bluntly:
‘’We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available in the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.’’
As prime minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes initiated the Glen Grey Act of 1894 which is the direct precursor of the Apartheid regime. The chief purpose of his act was to force more Africans into the wage-labour market by severely restricting African access to land so that they could not become owners of the means of production. The act also imposed a 10 shilling labour tax on all Africans who could not prove that they had been in ‘bona fide’ wage employment for at least three months in a year. Land shortage coupled with a tax for not engaging in wage-labour pushed thousands of Africans into the migrant labour market. These were all measures essentially designed to ensure a system of labour migration which would feed the mines in both Kimberly and the Witwatersrand with cheap African migrant labour. This notorious act instigated the terrible migrant-labour system which is still in practice in South Africa today and was one of the major reasons behind the Marikana Massacre of August 2012.
Rhodes was a firm believer in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and the British Empire. While at Oxford University he made his views abundantly clear:
"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 was even condemned in his own time. On March 27 1902, the Guardian newspaper made this assessment on Rhodes and his legacy:
"If the nations of the earth were to be as ‘dragons of the prime, that tore each other in their slime’, there indeed was a dragon efficient in both tooth and claw. Rhodes before he died had outlived the warmest of admiration that he thus won. For one thing his exclusive preoccupation with purely material considerations had led him terribly wrong, and through him and his press, had led this country terribly wrong too, as to the cost and length of the (Anglo-Boer) War."
Overthrow the new Rhodeses
Cecil John Rhodes is inextricably linked to South African capitalism, and his name is associated with everything the system stands for. This is ultimately why the issue of this statue has unearthed such deep emotions. In essence, it reflects the material reality for the majority of black working class people. Rhodes symbolizes oppression, racism and alienation. The student protest at the University of Cape Town is really a call for an end to racism and a demand for deep and meaningful change in the universities and in society in general
It is also telling that these protests are being led by the generation who were born after the 1994 democratic elections. According to the prevailing logic, these people are the so-called “born-free generation’’ who were not supposed to have same problems as their parents and grandparents. This notion has been shattered by these events. All the horrors of racism, sexism and oppression are still crawling underneath the surface of South African society. When the ruling ANC formed government it postponed all talk of socialism to a distant future and called for the consolidation of bourgeois democracy. But now that this has been achieved, it is clear that none of the fundamental problems plaguing the masses have been solved. The fundamental mistake was the belief that the goals of the so-called National Democratic Revolution - of fighting poverty, unemployment, racism, etc - could be achieved within the limits of the capitalist system.
The negotiated settlement which formally ended the Apartheid regime did not touch the power and wealth of the bourgeoisie. These people are still in control to this very day, but now they have been joined in their looting frenzy by a thin layer of black capitalists like Motsepe and Ramaphosa. Together, these direct descendants of Cecil John Rhodes are now the new ruling class of South Africa and continue to fleece the South African masses.
The horrors of racism, sexism, oppression, dispossession and exclusion of the majority of the people from the means of production are integral features of capitalism. The system cannot survive without them. In the South African context, racism is one of the best weapons the capitalists have at their disposal. It is the single largest tool the capitalists have used to divide the working class and consign the majority of blacks to sources of cheap labour.
The recent struggles we have seen in South Africa have been bubbling under the surface for a while now. These developments are further confirmation that a large proportion of the South African working class masses and the poor have already drawn a clear balance sheet of the 21 years since the abolition of Apartheid. One layer after another of the oppressed in society are making their voices heard. The masses clearly believe that nothing fundamental has changed since the advent of bourgeois democracy in South Africa. Now the students have also joined the fray.
Despite the colossal productive forces that capitalism creates, it is unable to use them to raise the living standards of the masses. Poverty, inequality, racism, and unemployment have reached epidemic proportions. Formal democratic rights under capitalism do not solve any of the fundamental problems of housing, jobs, land, education etc. This is no surprise. The capitalist system has outlived its historic usefulness and is now in it’s deepest crisis ever.
Cecil John Rhodes and others laid the foundations for the development of capitalism in South Africa. His work was later duplicated and expanded by the hideous Apartheid regime after the Second World War. Through brutal racial oppression of black people, capitalism could find the means for the rapid development of the productive forces. But through this very process, the capitalists unwittingly created the gravediggers of South African capitalism, the revolutionary South African proletariat.
The movement to abolish statues and names associated with the representatives of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism can only be worthwhile if we fight to do away with the capitalist system that only stands for oppression and exploitation. Only by expropriating the capitalists and taking the productive forces into common ownership under democratic workers’ control and management can we begin to lay the material basis for a new socialist society. It will be in this new society that we will finally be free from racism and oppression and be able to develop ourselves to our maximum potential.