During my undergraduate years at the University at Cape Town, I stayed in the prestigious Smuts Hall, with halls rich in tradition and rooms with views of the city of Cape Town. 3 times a day, we used to walk over the parking lot to Fuller Hall for mealtimes, passing the now controversial statue of Cecil John Rhodes.
For most of my undergraduate years, I took no notice of it, and thought of it as another decorative feature of the university campus, such as World War memorial stone positioned behind it. On one occasion, I stopped to read a board next to the statue, explaining the significance of the person who was being celebrated and honoured by the statue. The description mentioned how the posture of the sculptured Rhodes was significant, as he was positioned looking into the interior of the African continent, contemplating his dream of building a railway from Cape to Cairo. The picture built of him was one of an explorer and a statesman, without the controversy attached.
The next time I came across this figure was in 2013 when reading about the Jameson Raid in Max Du Preez‘s Of Trickster’s, Tyrants and Turncoats. It was interesting how he was one of the forerunners of the Anglo-Boer war in his desire for political and economic control. Soon after, I read about the Rudd Concession, in which Lobengula, the second-last king of the Ndebele people was tricked into signing an agreement which gave Rhodes’ British South Africa Company exclusive mining rights to the region in which he was in control. While reading other history books, I learnt about his belief in social darwinism, which led him to hold the view that the British nation was the most outstanding nation on this earth, and it was in the best interest of the world for as much as it as possible to be under the British crown. This was a large motivation in taking over large pieces of land, despite the questionable profitability of some ventures. If this was the entire picture of the historical narrative, then conclusions would be easy.
The more one learns about history, the harder it is to draw simple conclusions. It is difficult to walk in the shoes of a certain period of history without tainting our narratives with the realities of today. A simple example is the difficulty in thinking about the land on the southern tip of the African continent without thinking about the political entity now called South Africa, which only came about in 1910. It is even more difficult thinking about the fluidity of the land and political borders before the 1900s. The idea of using force to take land was shared not only by those who arrived to the south of Africa by ship, but also by those who arrived here by land. Shaka held this view when expanding his kingdom and causing hordes of individuals and families to flee. Mzilikazi also held this view when leaving Shaka’s kingdom to form his new kingdom, and destroying all opposition along the way. The Afrikaner Voortrekkers held this view when fighting against the Zulu kingdom. The English held this view when fighting against the various Xhosa tribes in the frontier wars. The Mfengu people also held this view when fighting on the side of the British in some of these frontier wars. From history, it is evident that taking land from others was a universal phenomena, and not the trait of an individual group.
It is because of this that I find it hard to hold the oversimplified narrative that ‘whites came and stole our land’. But that does n0t mean that I think anyone was necessarily justified in taking someone else’s land. If we hold the idea that individuals and their actions were just products of their time, then there is no absolute anchor to hold the rocking boat of times and seasons of relative morality. When we look at our day, can we conclude that the rampant sex trafficking rings are just products of the age? Can we easily say that corrupt governments who rob the dignity of the poor within their jurisdictions are just the result of the time they live in? There has to be an absolute measuring stick with which we can measure both the past, and the present.
I hold to the absolute view that human beings are created in the image of God, giving them infinite worth, and infinite value. A person is no less than another based on their financial worth, intellect, position on the human development index, or even morality. A person should view themselves as having infinite worth, despite perceived evidence otherwise. In the same way, a person needs to see other individuals as having infinite worth, despite perceived evidence otherwise, and proceed to treat them so. This breaks down the white supremacist argument that ‘we came here with technology and advancement’. Whether that is the case or not, it is irrelevant, because we are all of infinite worth. It also breaks down the current pervasive narrative of black moral superiority. The view of the infinite worth of human individuals empowers them to act because of the worth they see in themselves, and gives them the responsibility to correct injustices because of how they view others.
And what does this have to do with the statue? The presence of a statue is there to honour the individual depicted in it. Many people would find it difficult to honour and celebrate an individual who would debase their value, and conscript them to a place in society less than their worth. What we seek to do is to build a nation from our broken past in which all are treated with infinite value. It is hard to do so with celebrated reminders of that broken past.