Does the #RhodesDebate offer any significance to students around South Africa?

For the past few weeks, the media has been buzzing with students of the University of Cape Town calling for the statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of the most committed imperialists of the 19th Century, to be taken down. But question is why has it sparked some rage now? What is the significance of such actions towards many students in South Africa?


Rhodes was an imperialist, businessman and politician who played a dominant role in Southern Africa in the late 19th Century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land. Those who want the statue removed object to Rhodes as the ultimate representation of colonialism.

Many questions surface that after 21 years of our democracy, why should it be removed now?Apartheid was introduced in 1948 and ended in 1991, but it has taken until now for there to be momentum behind removing statues of Rhodes. Students at the university believe the removal of the statue would bring transformation to the institution. Many black students and the majority of the black academics feel it represents institutional racism.

For blacks, UCT is a place of humiliation and denial, while presenting itself as a home for all. For black academics it makes for a depressing read, while the curriculum remains largely about white knowledge and representations. How do we as South Africans respond to their assaults? Many black academics speak about a hostile and stifling environment that borders on permanent violence and threats. To be black is to be silent. One of the big questions the UCT protest poses is this: Is it possible to have an anti-racist university in a racist society?

To many white people it may be seen as a bias attempt as they feel Rhodes brought some life to South Africa. According to City Press Newspaper, white people patronizingly told black students to learn some manners and be thankful they are at such an amazing institution. “Where would this country have been were it not for the colonialists?” was frequently asked.

For those of us who are not in the Cape Town region, it does not astonish us as we see it offering no relevance in our lives. Little did we know that their actions can alter emotions and motives that can change our lives? We are the agents for change.

Social and racial issues have been with us throughout history. Students have been the forefront for social change, whether we are talking about Steve Biko and the Black Consciences in the 1960s or Tsietsi Mashinini in 1976. The #Rhodescampaign represents a free expression of the unjust to many. Students have been talking and debating racial issues on the campus for a number of years, yet the university still does nothing to create real transformation. The frustration of not being heard leads to violence. The signal of the removal leads to a change of mindset for everyone.

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Has the Rhodes Campaign ignited motives for students around the country that they should act with violence to be heard? Melanie Verwoerd states that nothing is more dangerous for the future of South Africa than a growing sense of alienation and disconnect by the majority of young people. Is the future of South Africa in relation to racial acceptance at stake because of the UCT students?

Is it necessary to hear the hurt, anger and frustration of UCT students and understand what lies behind it? Are we learning how to express ourselves, what it meant to be a human being and how best to struggle for a better society without any restrictions? History is history. The removal of a statue or change of a street name cannot change it. It is apart of us.

But the sense of belonging does not depend on the monument, but on what it represents. “Happily, artist Willem Boshoff came up with a far more meaningful idea: to cover the murals with transparent glass panels that recorded the names of the indigenous people and slaves whose voices had been silenced in the past.” suggests Justice Albert ‘Albie’ Sachs, an activist and former judge at the Constitutional Court of SA.

The real question is, what will happen after the statue has been removed? Will the students feel good about themselves? Yes, it can be removed but the painful memories that came with it can never be. For many of us, we read apartheid in books. We do not carry it’s burdens. Are we to say that it is only now that we realize the pain that apartheid has brought that we are willing to eradicate everything it has left behind?

Tell us what you think: Do you think statues of people like Cecil John Rhodes have a place in democratic SA? Do you think students throughout South Africa opt for violence to be heard?

Written by:

Agisanang Disemelo



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