The emotive (and inconclusive) Rhodes debate

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Some 15 years ago, one militant nationalist demanded that Cecil John Rhodes’ remains must be exhumed from the picturesque Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe. He was so militant that he captured the nation’s attention, but his activism would soon die out.

But that was not the end of it, 10 years later, and this time led by a government minister, another campaign was launched to have Rhodes remains dug out from the Matopos. The argument this time was that the African ancestors weren’t too happy with Rhodes being buried at the sacred mountains and were withholding the rains.

This argument, despite it having all the hallmarks of a cuckoo, surprisingly garnered a few supporters.

Now South African students have started a campaign to have Rhodes statue removed from a university and it seems they might get their way.

Rhodes in Southern Africa, particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe and Zambia, who were once named after the godfather of colonialism, is quite an emotive subject, where opinion is often polarised and emotion takes charge ahead.

Anti-Rhodes campaigners point out that colonialism led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, loss of culture, identity, plundering of local resources and so on. And Rhodes is the poster boy for colonialism.

Those who support him on the other hand argue that as bad as he was, the money he made (maybe not all of it) has been ploughed back into education, a field where Africa finds itself quite a distance behind the rest of the world.

So the question for many is, if let’s say, we dig up Rhodes’ grave in Zimbabwe, should it end there, or we should do more to rid ourselves of this colonial monster?

For example, should we turn our backs on the Rhodes scholarship, rename one of Matabeleland ‘s iconic schools, Rhodes Estate Preparatory School, and also change the name of one of the world heritage sites, Rhodes Matopo Park?

These are the tough questions we should ask ourselves.

The same goes for South Africa, should Rhodes, the arch-evil continue adorning academic institutions and should he have anything, university, school, or even a road named after him.

In our quest to divest ourselves of the colonial history, there’s a real danger that we might as well be guilty of hypocrisy, where we accept what we think is noble and reject what we find despicable.

The majority view is that Rhodes was evil, so we should get rid of him and everything that his legacy stands for. But we risk shooting ourselves in the foot in so doing, as it is quite impossible to airbrush Rhodes out of our history.

On the other hand, one may argue that instead of rushing to tear down these statues, graves and other such relics, they can instead serve as a reminder as to what went wrong in Africa and how we should never allow an outsider to dictate our lives.

In Germany for example, places like Madame Tussauds have wax sculptures of Adolf Hitler (also known as the devil incarnate) but have a caveat that you can see the sculpture but in respect of his victims, they ask that you do not take pictures of the sculpture.

This way, Hitler, as bad as he was, is not airbrushed from history, but serves as a reminder of the country’s dark past, which Germany does not want to go back to.

While this may or may not work in the Rhodes situation, the truth is we cannot pretend he never existed.

Even as emotions take over, it is quite important that we take a step back and ask ourselves, where will all this end, after Rhodes’ statue and grave what’s next? David Livingstone’s statute in the Victoria Falls?

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