What’s in a Name? The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town

For the past few weeks, students at the University of Cape Town have been demonstrating in protest of the Cecil Rhodes statue situated front and center on the university’s campus since 1934. The statue overlooks the rugby fields and sits at the top of the main steps, an unavoidable first impression of the university. Currently, the statue is covered in garbage bags.

Students protesting “say the statue represents racism and a lack of transformation at the institution.” Protests have reached a critical tension in the past few weeks, with students going to extreme measures to ensure that their message is heard. Many students have refused to sleep in their dorm rooms, and some students “tied themselves to the entrance and doors leading to management offices.” In early March, a protest escalated to the point of students smearing human excrement over the statue.

Cecil Rhodes has a mixed legacy in Cape Town and at the university itself. He is either a “heroic 19th century politician and businessman,” or a “cold-blooded capitalist imperialist” and an undeniable mix of the two. On the one hand, he founded the De Beers diamond firm, which funded scholarships that allow overseas students to come to Oxford University, and “many institutions, including Cape Town University itself, benefited from his largesse.” His supporters argue that he “brought political and physical infrastructure to South Africa” and make the case that the removal of his statue would be denying an important part of Cape Town’s history or disrespecting his legacy.

On the other hand, as prime minister of Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, his government “effectively restricted the rights of black Africans by raising financial qualifications for voting.” It is an objective fact that Rhodes actively perpetuated racial segregation and oppression, seeing the English as the “master race.” In his will, Rhodes outlined the allocation of his wealth for the expansion of a secret society that would extend British influence around the world.

The controversy calls into question what is in a name­ — should the university fully disassociate itself from Rhodes’s name? At this point, the statue has come to represent more than just Rhodes’s individual legacy, as many students argue that it is “a symbol of white supremacy.” SAHRA chief executive Veliswa Baduza commented, “Moving a statue to a less prominent place can and has been done. We cannot obliterate history but we can determine what our national heritage looks like.”

The question is complicated by the continuing existence of some entirely positive components of Rhodes’ legacy — notably, the Rhodes Scholarship, which has enabled many students to attend Oxford as well as the establishment of Rhodes University in Grahamstown. At Rhodes University, students “recently gathered there to express support for the Cape Town students” and request a name change. Should the name of the Rhodes’s Scholarship also be changed? And if so, is it fair for the funding to continue to be provided by Rhodes’s wealth?

Some argue that if the university decides to disassociate itself from Rhodes’s legacy, it must also dissociate itself from his legacy’s positive elements; however, I disagree.

Arguably, given that the historical narrative has long favored the white citizens of Cape Town and silenced the voices of black South Africans, it is only fair to accept the removal of the Rhodes statue in an effort to tip the balance back after so many years of unequal treatment. A student leader commented, “The statue is a constant reminder for many black students of the position in society that black people have occupied due to hundreds of years of apartheid, racism, oppression and colonialism.”

The continued presence of the statue in such a central location on campus is emotionally harming many students as has been made evident by the extent of the protests and demonstrations in recent weeks. What’s more, as a country in which Apartheid existed as recently as 1994, South Africa still has a lot of work to do toward righting the record and correcting its extensive legacy of racial wrongdoing.

The removal of the statue doesn’t harm anyone — even Rhodes’s immediate family members should be able to understand the motivation — so if it is one gesture that will demonstrate both the university and the country’s willingness to work toward progress and correct for the past, then the statue should be taken down.