The Present Contretemps around Cecil Rhodes. The Warden of Rhodes House expands Our Horizons

A Letter from  Charles Conn to Rhodes Scholars, 7 April 2015

With the debate at University of Cape Town around the statue of Cecil Rhodes still very active, and spilling over to other sites in South Africa, I wanted to send you a short note.  There is a diversity of legitimate opinions around this issue, and we do not propose an official Rhodes Trust position.  We expect that Rhodes Scholars around the world will want to find their own way of thinking about and addressing these questions and there is an active debate on the Rhodes Scholar Network. For those not aware of the debate, a piece from The Guardian provides a quick overview. We believe that it is important to bear in mind that the historical legacy of apartheid has left a complicated set of efforts to address its pervasive injustices, and this must take place in South Africa, by South Africans. AA--writ large

While it does not excuse his role in history, Cecil Rhodes’ wealth was left in his will to create educational opportunities that have benefitted South Africans of all races, as well as those of many other nationalities. They include many Scholars who have played a prominent role in fighting the apartheid system, including Bram Fischer, Kumi Naidoo and Shaun Johnson. Overall, the Rhodes Scholarships have had a remarkably positive effect, educating 8000 Scholars at Oxford, a substantial number of whom are occupied at the forefront of human rights work and are key advocates for expanded social justice.

We have a strong commitment to Africa, and many Scholars from that continent have already had profound impact, and will continue to implement positive change. Just a few example include Lucy Banda-Sichone who formed the Zambia Civic Education Association; Dr Trevor Mundel, President of the Global Health Programme at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Edwin Cameron, Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court; Dr François Bonnici, Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation; Dr Tariro Makadzange, whose research focuses on perinatally infected children and adolescents with HIV; and Yusuf Randera-Rees, founder of the Awethu Project. The list is a long one, and spans all aspects of the human condition.

As you all know, Nelson Mandela partnered with the Rhodes Trust in 2003 to create The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, aimed at developing young leaders for Africa. This has enabled hundreds of Africans from over 18 countries to take a masters or honours year in South Africa. Mandela saw there was a chance to reconcile different historical traditions and at the time he spoke about closing the circle of history.  Here at the Rhodes Trust we are very proud of all that has been achieved by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and continue to support them in the terrific work they are doing. Articles on this debate have been published by Shaun Johnson, Executive Director, and Judy Sikuza, Programme Director.

The Rhodes Trust is a future-focused organisation and we have bold plans to enable more young leaders to study at Oxford. This includes a desire to reinstate the Rhodes Scholarships for Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, add Scholarships to existing African countries, and expand to new countries in Africa and beyond. We are very excited about what our Scholars will achieve in the next 100 years.

I encourage those of you who wish to participate in the debate to do so through the Rhodes Scholar Network discussion group. If you have not yet signed up for the online Network, further information can be found here.

Best wishes, Charles Charles Conn (Massachusetts & Balliol 1983) Warden, Rhodes House


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Students’ attack on Cecil Rhodes statue leads to soul searching in South Africa

When students hurled a bucket of excrement over a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at South Africa’s highest ranked university, they could scarcely have guessed how their act would trigger national soul searching about heritage, identity and race.

Protesters at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are demanding the statue’s removal as a catalyst for becoming a less “eurocentric” and more African institution. In what one newspaper dubbed “Rhodes rage” and Twitter users embraced as #RhodesMustFall, they argue that the colonialist has no place on campus 21 years after the end of apartheid.

The brittle multiracial consensus subsequently built by Nelson Mandela and others is tested every so often by some event that comes seemingly out of the blue. In 2012, it was a satirical painting of president Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, leading to a divisive debate about humiliating portrayals of black men versus the artist’s right to criticise. This time it is a statue that has brought frustration and resentment bubbling to the surface.

“There is underlying anger in the country,” said Xolela Mangcu, an academic at UCT and biographer of black consciousness founder Steve Biko. “There has been a failure to really engage truthfully with the raw emotions of people’s experience. A thing like the Rhodes statue triggers the raw feelings of alienation. The people know there’s been a general failure to deal with race and now it’s blown up in their faces.”

Born in 1853, the son of a Bishop’s Stortford clergyman, Rhodes went to South Africa because of adolescent ill-health, founded the De Beers diamond empire, became one of the world’s wealthiest men and rose to be premier of Cape Colony in 1890. He began the policy of enforced racial segregation in South Africa and allowed the newspapers he controlled to publish racist tracts. He died in 1902, aged 49, and was buried in the country that bore his name, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Rhodes donated the land on which the UCT campus is built. The statue, unveiled in 1934, depicts him in a seated position and has been a source of discontent for years. But the “poo protest” galvanised student activists who plan to march on Friday. In response UCT’s vice-chancellor, Max Price, has suggested the statue be moved to a less prominent location, though not destroyed.

Mangcu added: “It should have long been removed. Rhodes was probably one of the worst colonisers both in word and deed. His legacy speaks for itself. He laid the template through the native reserves, the pass laws and saying extremely racist things. For his statue to have pride of place is anachronistic.”

The demands point to a deeper problem at UCT, where only five out of more than 200 full professors are black and the number of black South African female full professors is zero. Mangcu, who is outspoken on the subject, said: “I’m happy the statue will open the conversation. It symbolises something gone wrong at the university. It didn’t have to come to this. I’m hoping there will be a different mode of engagement; there’s a lot of anger among black people at UCT.”

Student leaders say that, along with the teaching staff, the demographic of the student body and the content of the curriculum are also sorely in need of transformation. Ramabina Mahapa, president of the Student Representative Council, said: “It is eurocentric and needs to move to a more African outlook. African students are not able to identify with the institution and feel a sense of belonging, and that needs to change.”

On Thursday South Africa’s higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, backed this view. A statement from the ministry agreed that the statue should be moved, adding: “However, it is important for higher education institutions to note that transformation goes far beyond this. It should include changing the demographic composition of staff and student bodies as well as ensuring that curriculum reflects South Africa’s development and cultural needs. It should reflect the history of its people, including all their languages, art, philosophical and religious beliefs, and their material and scientific development.”

Rhodes’s legacy is a source of ambivalence for some. Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape province, was created with Rhodes’s wealth and named after him. His will also created the Rhodes scholarships to educate future leaders for the world at Oxford University. In 2003 the Rhodes Trust joined in the creation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation which provides scholarships for students studying at African universities.

Trudi Makhaya, who studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, wrote in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper that his will was limited by the sexism and racism of his era but its scholarship endowments revealed a man who recognised some universal virtues. “These contradictions, Rhodes the pillager and Rhodes the benefactor, are a symbol of our country’s evolution towards a yet to be attained just and inclusive order,” she said.

Adekeye Adebajo, a Nigerian Rhodes scholar and executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, said on Friday: “At the time I got the Rhodes scholarship, all I could think about was getting a good education and fighting for pan-Africanist issues. This wealth was stolen from Africa when Rhodes plundered the continent, so I felt absolutely no guilt about using the money to criticise what he stood for.”

Monuments to South Africa’s colonial and apartheid rule are scattered throughout the country. Debates over renaming streets or cities – including the capital, Pretoria – are ongoing. With English the language of politics and business, some commentators have complained that the black majority remain a cultural minority in their own country. Universities, as oases of opportunity to escape widespread poverty and joblessness, are often a focal point.

Writing in the Times newspaper, Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, commented: “University leaders make a strategic mistake to think these protests are simply about statues. They are about a deeper transformation of universities – including the complexion of the professoriate – that remains largely unchanged.”


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