“Erase Rhodes? That offends me as a teacher”. This was the title of an article penned by Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, for the Rand Daily Mail. He was, of course, responding to the #RhodesMustFall movement sweeping university campuses all over South Africa.
Jansen characterised the movement’s efforts as the work of “…a few unthinking and angry students [who] wish to erase [Rhodes’] memory”. He was particularly pained by what he called “the contorted reasoning of Rhodes Scholars as well as Mandela Rhodes Scholars” who have benefited from the educational and social privileges of bearing the Rhodes insignia, and yet, after decades of silence, have found the courage to stand in solidarity with the “unthinking” and “angry” masses.
And while Jansen agrees that Rhodes does not deserve prominence on our university campuses, he is ultimately “offended” by what he calls an “airbrushing” of Rhodes from the history of our campuses. This presumed airbrushing is offensive to Jansen, he argues, because we are all entangled in the reality of our colonial history, and to erase Rhodes is to deny ourselves.
Jansen proposes that instead of the “anti-educational” and “anti-progressive” activity which he perceives as erasing, we must critically, contextually, and charitably engage our troubled past; a past which he suggests is just as troubled by “African kings who wiped out whole communities but today enjoy pride of place in our democracy”.
From the perspective of the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University, Jansen’s take, that this historic moment of conscientising is an unthoughtful effort to erase Cecil John Rhodes from history, is not only problematic, but unconscionably inaccurate—far, far of the mark.
Jansen characterises student leaders of the #RhodesMustFall movement as “unthinking” and “angry”. Besides the ironic employment of terminology such as “unthinking” to critique what he perceives as a lack of intellectual criticality and integrity, Jansen seems to be suggesting that emotionality is unwelcomed in academic spaces. His allusion of some relationship between intellectual ineptitude and emotional forthrightness pines of a colonial respectability politics which says that we must limit ourselves to the modes of communication and expression supposed “appropriate” by the oppressive institutions we wish to transform.
Jansen is asking students to place the supra-rational comforts of the academe above their own real, lived experiences of marginalisation in the academic space. Student groups like the Black Student Movement (BSM) believe in honouring the full-orbed expressivity of the human being; therefore, righteous anger is not arbitrary. It is, in fact, sparked by an intellectual engagement with the brilliant black consciousness writers of the past and present, and it is the driving force behind organising for transformation. Righteous anger has, indeed, done the exact thing Jansen argues we should be doing: “recognising [Rhodes’] complex and troubled legacy and our own entanglements within it.” It is precisely these complex entanglements which we believe are concealed from the colour-blind eyes of neo-liberal spaces like Rhodes University.
Another point which Jansen grievously misreads is that groups like the Black Student Movement are attempting to erase the history of Cecil John Rhodes. However, as well-read scholars, we understand that such an effort is all but impossible. In fact, one could argue that our efforts should be inversely characterised. We are working to unmask the ways in which the terrors of men like Rhodes continue to damage the lives of average South African’s a century removed. South Africa’s colonial history cannot be likened to a document written on paper with pencil -something that can be erased. It is more accurately analogous to an onion – something which must be peeled, exposed; something whose stench, no matter how many layers are removed, will always remain.
We advocate for changing the name of Rhodes University because a namesake is a symbol of admiration and affection. And we do not admire the “legacy” of Cecil John Rhodes. We believe that Rhodes’ name can be removed from the university walls. It can be replaced by the name of a sister or brother who was valiant in the struggle for liberation; someone whose work inspires us to remove the chains of an Apartheid that never left.
We cannot talk about Black Consciousness without highlighting the likes of Cecil John Rhodes. Therefore, to remove Rhodes is not to forget him; in fact, it is to remind ourselves of the source of our pain, and the reasons we must love each other into being. It is to peel back the comfortable reflections on Rhodes as a stalwart for education, and to reveal the stench of a colonial past which he represents, and which continues to bring tears to the eyes of many. No amount of money will be accepted for our silence, for the silencing of a legacy which, with twists and turns throughout history, effectively led to the massacre at Marikana.
The pain of loss, isolation and oppression can never be erased. However, we will not accept memorials and monuments to political tyrants, which in turn garner admiration by their very presence as a monument or memorial. This only encourages the silencing of pain for those who see things differently; it inspires a comfort which cripples our ability to hear the cries of the oppressed.
If Jansen is pained or disrupted by our anger, then we are doing our job. And, as a movement which honours complex emotional expressions and intellectual rigour, we welcome Prof Jansen into a conversation. But he mustn’t allow his own discomfort with our emotions to be a distraction from the criticality with which we engage this movement.
He must address us with the balance and respect which he suggests we take up. In allowing his discomfort to distract him he undermines his own suggestion: he allows an emotion (discomfort) to uncritically guide his assessment of this movement, and he writes us off as generally “unthinking” – a term not reserved for the type academic critique and conversation of which he advocates. He swiftly and ironically accomplishes what seems to offend him in the first place.
I would ask Prof Jansen, exactly, what he is reading. And I would respectfully suggest that he request a copy of the Black Student Movement Concept, produced by the students of Rhodes University. He will not find proclamations to erase Rhodes from history. But, he will find proclamations that promise concerted efforts to address issue specific ways that the university knowingly and unknowingly marginalises students (e.g. ensuring that the university assists poor students who can’t afford bus tickets home or alternative accommodation during vacation).
He will come to understand that the movement is about more than changing a name and only a name. It’s about changing the culture of a colonial dispensation which continues to breathe the fire of what we believe should be its last breath. It’s about exposing the ways in which white supremacy exists in insidious and concealed ways in our institutions of higher learning. It’s about holistic transformation.
When a child is born it is given a name. And, in many instances, a name carries a narrative. On the campus of Rhodes University, and on campuses all over South Africa, Black Consciousness is being reborn. And when it is called forth, by its name, we will never be able to forget the abusive past which helped to conceive it. Therefore, we are not erasing; we are simply recasting history’s players in a light which will expose just how present and real is the insidiousness of their racist white supremacy.
We are demanding that our institution memorialise and celebrate the victims of colonialism who victoriously rose from the ashes to liberate, instead of hailing its arsonists. DM
Paul Daniels is an MA candidate in the Philosophy Department at Rhodes University, and a member of the Black Student Movement.
Don't believe Han Solo's evasion of Empire TIE Fighters. There are many miles of vacuum space between each asteroid in a field.