The Statue & the Shit

Rhodes the founding father of apartheid

For 103 years the statue of Cecil John Rhodes just sits there on the UCT campus, brooding out over the rugby fields all the way to the Cape Flats.

It celebrates his dream of a white man’s Africa — stretching British imperial power all the way from Cape to Cairo.
For 103 years the statue ignores sun, rain, war, peace, apartheid, protests, The Struggle, freedom, democracy, students, professors, rugby players and tons of pigeon shit.

But after 103 years it can’t ignore human shit.

Not when fourth-year UCT political science student, Chumani Maxwele, empties that bucket of the stuff over Rhodes’ head. And someone takes a picture. And the picture goes viral.

And suddenly the statue and the man it represents are famous around the globe. And South African racism flames back into the world’s headlines.

Of course, all decent people are outraged by the shit storm surrounding the Great Man’s statue.

“Damned uncivilised! Have some respect for South Africa’s past. I just don’t think anyone should throw poo at his statue.”

“After all, Rhodes gave us Groote Schuur and the Rhodes Scholarship and Kirstenbosch. The faeces is a bloody disgrace!”

“It wasn’t Rhodes who started apartheid, you know.”

In fact, in many ways, Cecil John Rhodes was the founding father of apartheid.

That loathsome system might never have poisoned this country if Rhodes had stayed back there in the pretty little English village of Bishop’s Stortford in England, instead of coming here.

Let me explain.

Between 1908 and 1910, my mother’s great uncle, John X. Merriman, is the last Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. One of his passionate objectives is to preserve the traditional Cape policy of one man, one vote.

(Under the Cape Franchise at the time, all men — regardless of colour — in the Cape Colony [later the Cape Province] have the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.)

Merriman wants to protect the franchise and extend it to the rest of what will soon become the Union of South Africa.

He deplores discrimination on the grounds of “the accident of colour.” His goal is a united South Africa “which recognises the common brotherhood of all who make South Africa their home.”

Merriman’s enemy is Cecil John Rhodes, who recognises no common brotherhood, certainly not with black people.
“The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism … in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.”

And: “I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

And so it is, that not much more than a hundred years ago, these two hugely different Englishmen battle for the soul of the soon-to-be-born Union of South Africa.

With Rhodes’s enthusiastic encouragement — and Merriman’s fierce opposition — the Anglo-Boer War breaks out. Before it’s over, more than 75,000 children, women and men of all races, die for the greater glory of the British empire.
A few years later, when the Cape Colony is dissolved and the Union of South Africa is born, Merriman is elected to the new national government led by Louis Botha.

He tries desperately to preserve the Cape Franchise.

And fails.

He opposes the Native Land Act of 1913 which virtually ends any chance that black South Africans will ever own their own land.

And fails.

Thirty-five years later — with a sort of obscene inevitability — comes apartheid.

John X. Merriman would have been appalled.

Cecil John Rhodes would have been ecstatic.

Another sixty-seven years later, while people cheer and wave triumphant fists, a crane picks up that brooding bronze statue from its place of honour at UCT, swings it onto a flat-bed lorry and it’s driven away into storage.

Maybe my mother’s great uncle doesn’t win the fight against white racism in South Africa way back in the last century.

But I know he would have cheered had he been there when Rhodes’ statue disappeared from UCT after those 103 long years.