Why Colonial Symbols Are So Loathed In Africa

Why Colonial Symbols Are So Loathed In Africa
A South African protester next to the offensive statue of the genocidal maniac Cecil Rhodes on the UCT campus

AFRICANGOBE – The recent campaign in South Africa against colonial statues is just the tip of the iceberg in an Africa-wide phenomenon that is likely to result in the removal of offending statues of colonial figures from public places. With similar statues removed in Zimbabwe and Namibia in the recent past, other countries are bound to follow suit, writes Baffour Ankomah.

At No. 33 Fitzroy Street in central London, there is an ongoing exhibition featuring artifacts from Italy, one of which is the marble statue of Primo Carnera’s head. Carnera became Italy’s most famous athlete and champion of the world during the reign of Mussolini, who declared him a national hero.

The advert promoting the exhibition begins with a profound line: “Every object tells a story.” If you repeat this line twice in your head, you begin to see why South African students no longer want the colonial statues adorning their campuses and cities, and want them removed.

“Every object tells a story” indeed. So what stories do the hundreds of colonial statues in public places in African cities tell?

Generally they tell the stories of conquest, the subjugation of the African people and their lands by foreigners who came from across the seas. In that context, the statues rub salt into the wounds of the once- conquered people of Africa and their descendants.

As a result, according to the black students of the University of Cape Town (UCT), the contentious statue of Cecil Rhodes that used to sit, head in hand, looking out over the UCT’s rugby grounds was a “symbol of white supremacy” that offended their sensibilities, and therefore they wanted it removed. And it was removed.

Chumani Maxwele, the student who started it all by throwing a bucket of human excrement at Rhodes’ statue, advanced a powerful argument: “As black students,” he said, “we are disgusted by the fact that this statue still stands here today as it is a symbol of white supremacy.”

That feeling is universal across Africa, and it was not a surprise that thousands of other black South Africans agreed with Maxwele. “It should have long been removed,” Xolela Mangcu, a UCT academic and biographer of Steve Biko, said of Rhodes’ statue.

“Rhodes was probably one of the worst colonisers both in word and deed,” Mangcu, who also writes for New African, added. “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.”

Tuberculosis, land and diamonds

So what did Rhodes do exactly? According to Wendel Roelf of Reuters, Rhodes, who was born in 1853, the son of a Bishop’s Stortford clergyman in England, “went to South Africa because of adolescent ill-health. [He] founded the De Beers diamond empire, became one of the world’s wealthiest men and rose to be premier of the 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, depicted him in a seated position and has been a source of discontent for years.”

So, first, Cecil Rhodes started “the policy of enforced racial segregation in South Africa”. In other words, he started what became the obnoxious apartheid regime in that corner of Africa.

Second, he “donated” the land on which the UCT campus is built. The young man who arrived from Bishop’s Stortford with no land but plenty of tuberculosis in his lungs (as some historians have cared to point out), yet was able to “donate” the land on which the UCT campus was built! How he came by the land (by conquest) is the question that now haunts the descendants of the colonialists in Southern Africa.

Martin Plaut, another white journalist, writing on April 16 2015, made things even clearer. “Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the supreme imperialist,” he wrote. “A mining magnate who made a fortune from South Africa’s diamonds, [and] dreamed of a British empire from the Cape to Cairo. It was his private initiative that led to the conquest of Zimbabwe. He planned a raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal republic, which was a precursor to the Anglo-Boer War.”

Plaut went on: “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 Scholars to educate future leaders for the world at Oxford University [in England]. In 2003 the Rhodes Trust joined in the creation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which provides scholarships for students studying at African universities.”

So what was Plaut saying in so many words? The best interpretation was provided by Trudi Makhaya, a South African who studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. She commented that the “contradictions, [between] 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”.

But to Adekeye Adebajo, a Nigerian Rhodes scholar and executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, Rhodes the pillager completely cancels out Rhodes the benefactor. “At the time I got the Rhodes scholarship,” Adebajo said, “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.”

Statues of “good imperialists”?

It is the sum of these four simple words that is at the heart of the colonial statues debate! First, many Africans hasten to point out that Africans do not mind building statues for “good imperialists” who came to do good, or allowing the statues of such good imperialists to occupy places of honour in African cities.

For example, in the middle of the 1930s, Ghanaian chiefs and their people collected money and went as far as the Municipal Cemetery at Bexhill-on-Sea on the south coast of England to build a red granite headstone for Sir Gordon Guggisberg, the colonial governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) from 1919 to 1927, who, against stiff opposition from London, tried to develop Ghana with all his heart and with all his soul.

Of Jewish descent, Guggisberg’s forward-looking attitude to the development of the Gold Coast led to his adopted country, Britain, virtually disowning him. London stopped him from what he intended to do for Ghana, and when he died a pauper in 1930, he was buried in an unmarked grave. This shocked and angered the chiefs and people of Ghana who went all the way to Bexhill-on-Sea to erect the headstone befitting the stature of the man they called the “Beloved Imperialist”.

The inscription on the headstone still reads: “To the everlasting memory of Governor Sir Gordon Guggisberg who died in 1930 at Bexhill. This memorial was erected by the Paramount Chiefs and people of the Gold Coast and Ashanti.”

To many Africans, the words “beloved” and “imperialist” would seem incompatible. In fact, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, famously said “a good imperialist is a dead one”. But a “beloved imperialist” is how Ghanaians remember Guggisberg – “for having set the country on a better and faster course, in both infrastructural development and localisation of the civil service, towards eventual independence than was the lot of any other African colony before 1939”.

This establishes the fact that not all imperialists were bad. As such, Guggisberg’s statue still stands proudly in front of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana’s number one hospital – the hospital that Guggisberg built.

However, in contrast to Guggisberg, Cecil Rhodes and imperialists of his ilk left ambivalent legacies that affront African sensibilities. Thus to many Africans, Rhodes the Pillager makes a complete mockery of whatever good Rhodes the Benefactor did. As such, when Rhodes’ statues continue to stare down at them in public places, Africans get squeamish.

Unfortunately those who built the colonial statues did not take African sensibilities into consideration. Their heroes were not the heroes of the Africans, but because they were in power, they used the power of incumbency to do as they pleased, sometimes arrogantly.


Part Two