Opinionista John Battersby 8 July 2020

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation could remain as a symbol of the magnanimous spirit in which it was founded

Universities and governments are now grappling with the challenge of structural change to undo racist and colonial attitudes, discrimination and injustice. Cecil John Rhodes was an arch colonialist and mining magnate in southern Africa who was associated with the harshest aspects of imperial rule. Yet, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation should stand tall.

There was a hushed silence as the late Nelson Mandela walked the full length of the cavernous Westminster Hall slowly, supported on one side by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, on the other, by former US President Bill Clinton.

The date was 30 June  2003 as 1,000 of the great and the good alongside the 650 members of the House of Commons and 300 peers from the House of Lords gathered in the hall where Charles I, the only British monarch ever to be executed, was sentenced to death for treason in 1649.

The occasion was the hitherto unthinkable linking of the names of Mandela, the symbol of black liberation in South Africa and a global icon of racial justice, and Cecil John Rhodes, that arch colonialist and mining magnate in southern Africa who was associated with the harshest aspects of imperial rule.

Rhodes attended Oxford in the 1870s and was a member of Oriel College, He left money to the university which grew into a substantial legacy over the years. The joint foundation was conceived to bring some of those funds home to South Africa for postgraduate education.

Mandela is almost certainly the only leader who could have carried off such a bold and outlandish vision to nurture excellence of leadership on the African continent by forming a partnership, which unsettled both some custodians of the Rhodes vision as well as supporters of Mandela.

The history-seeped Westminster hall today bears the brass plaques of several generations of British monarchs on its huge stone floor, including those of King George VI and George V, father and grandfather respectively of the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Mandela’s memorial plaque, situated in front of the altar in nearby Westminster Abbey, was unveiled by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, one of Mandela’s  granddaughters, on 18 July 2018 on what would have been his 100th birthday amid a five-week exhibition to commemorate his centenary.

It was an intensely moving occasion which sent a shiver down my spine as I realised how incredibly fortunate South Africa is to count Mandela and his legacy among our greatest blessings.

The neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster, a royal residence since the Middle Ages, became the British Parliament in 1235. It burned down in 1834, but Westminster Hall survived and the current landmark building was constructed over the following three decades.

Across the street in Parliament Square stand the statues of successive British prime ministers spanning a century. 

Apart from Abraham Lincoln, who stands apart from the rest, there are only three statues which are not British:  Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and General Jan Smuts who was a close confidant of Winston Churchill.

… when on 9 April 2015, the Rhodes statue was removed by a crane from its provocatively prominent perch on the University of Cape Town campus amid a frenzy of Rhodes-Must-Fall student protests, it set in motion a similar campaign in Oxford.

In the run-up to the launch of the foundation at a lower key event in Rhodes House in Oxford a few days earlier, some benefactors of the Rhodes Trust railed against the notion of more than £100-million (R2-billion) being committed to a project so far removed from the original Rhodes vision in their view.

But supporters of the project among the Rhodes trustees won the day and the vision conjured up by then Rhodes Trust CEO, Dr John Rowett OBE, and Professor Jakes Gerwel, Chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa and a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and his wife Phoebe, won the day.

Mandela, who became the founding patron of the joint foundation, was always quite clear about his decision to endorse the project while being acutely aware of the tension between his own life and the Rhodes legacy.

“We see the Mandela Rhodes Foundation as a significant initiative within that broader framework of South Africans taking responsibility for the transformation of their society so grievously skewed by a history of colonialism and apartheid,” Mandela said at the launch of the foundation in 2003.

“We shall once more take hands across historical divides that others may deem unbridgeable,” he said.

Rooted in reconciliation and reparation, Mandela once again demonstrated his hallmark magnanimity by setting aside ideological differences in the interests of the common good – just as he had done by brokering a negotiated peace settlement in the polarised South African transition.

So when on 9 April 2015, the Rhodes statue was removed by a crane from its provocatively prominent perch on the University of Cape Town campus amid a frenzy of Rhodes-Must-Fall student protests, it set in motion a similar campaign in Oxford.

Driven by the articulate South African scholar Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign gained a renewed momentum in the heart of Britain’s most hallowed academic halls where student protesters built up enough steam to demand the removal of a less conspicuous statue of Rhodes.

Set between two fluted pillars in the façade of Oxford University’s Oriel College, the statue heightened awareness of the nationwide plethora of statues commemorating former slave barons and colonialists from some of the British Empire’s darker moments of repression and exploitation.

After a period of intense debate, which seized the Oxford campus in 2016, the Oriel College Governing Board delivered a flat ”no” to the students after the Oxford Union, a student-led debating society with no official status, voted narrowly by 245 votes to 212 in favour of removing the statue.

The British media reported at the time that a group of donors to the Rhodes Trust had threatened to withdraw £100-million (R2-billion) in funding and several wealthy Rhodes Trust alumni indicated that they would cancel legacies to benefit the trust in their wills.

The governing body insisted that the statue was a reminder of the complexity of Britain’s history and of the legacy of colonialism, and helped to link the past and the present.

The students panned the decision as “outrageous, dishonest and cynical” and vowed to continue the protest. Renewed calls for the decolonisation of the location of the statue and the curriculum were made by activists.

The only concession made by Oriel College was that it undertook to “add a clear historical context to explain why the statue was there.” The protest eventually fizzled out and the college failed to honour its undertaking to provide context.

Fast forward to the recent protests in support of the global Black Lives Matter movement and Oriel College reversed their decision, and said they would recommend to a yet-to-be-appointed commission with a time-scale of six months that the statue should be removed. 

It was history repeating itself: Many commitments have been made by authorities in the past to “contextualise” statues of bygone heroes who become offensive to subsequent generations with changing values and aspirations.

Attempts by academic and governmental authorities to anticipate campaigns to topple or deface statues by “contextualising” them or transferring them to museums are rare and inevitably too late. 

The defacing, toppling and hurling into the harbour of the statue of the once acclaimed philanthropist, Edward Colston, was waiting to happen as the Black Lives Matter tsunami in the US swept across the Atlantic and around the world in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by white cops.

The problem with the removal of the symbols of injustice through the toppling of statues and artefacts, and the desecration of graves is that the loss of memory that results from such actions usually has to be recovered at some later point in a country’s history.

History shows that in order to ensure national unity and an inclusive identity, there needs to be a common understanding of the past. South Africa has done well on this front and has not torn down controversial memorials to the past such as the Voortrekker Monument or the Battle of Blood River Museum.

Also hurtful and insulting to black Britons was the wrongful detention, deportation and denial of British citizenship, and legal rights to many members of the Caribbean community who came to Britain nearly 50 years ago on the HMS Windrush.

Symbols of the Afrikaner’s struggle for freedom have been allowed to co-exist with those to commemorate the martyrs and heroes of the liberation struggle to overthrow apartheid and statues of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, were quietly removed before being torn down.

While racist attitudes and overt discrimination in Britain might have a different face, they are no less offensive to black and minority Britons.

The memory of the horrific murder of Stephen Lawrence by three white thugs – and the cover-up in the ensuing police investigation – is still raw 27 years later. Mandela’s appearance in 1993 alongside Stephen’s parents –  Doreen and Neville Lawrence – reignited the troubled police investigation.

Also hurtful and insulting to black Britons was the wrongful detention, deportation and denial of British citizenship, and legal rights to many members of the Caribbean community who came to Britain nearly 50 years ago on the HMS Windrush.

But the problem with the desecration of graves and toppling of statues is that such actions seldom solve the underlying social problem that precipitated them. Internal conflict in populist movements often retard the transformation of attitudes and real progress towards racial equality.

As Graca Machel, Mandela’s widow and widow of the revolutionary Mozambican leader, Samora Machel, put it in a recent BBC interview:

“It is more positive to keep statues in place so that future generations can learn about history,” she said, adding that tearing down statues “would not resolve the ills of the past.”

“What is important is to look at the history of what it is that brought us to the situation we are in,” she said, adding that future generations could then be told how it (apartheid and colonialism), all started and how it should never have happened.

This is not a popular view among activists in the UK. Campaigners in the UK have identified some 80 statues, memorials, plaques, names of buildings, pubs, schools and parks that they want removed because of their association with slavery and colonialism.

Following the recent dunking of the Colston statue in Bristol, the statue of Winston Churchill was defaced by protesters and the statues of Gandhi and Mandela had to be encased in wooden boxes, and guarded by police when right-wing protests clashed with police in Parliament Square.

But protest draws attention to a cause which can lead to remedial action and puncture the comfort zones of the ruling class which, in turn, changes attitudes and behaviour, and alters the balance of power between the majority culture and marginalised minorities.

University Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, in a speech to the Canon Collins Education Trust student conference in Cape Town in 2016, foresaw some of the deeper issues which would have to be addressed in higher education in South Africa if there was ever to be a more equitable society.

Identifying poverty and inequality as the primary forces preventing the realisation of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa, Phakeng embraced the phenomenon of the “new activism” to draw attention to structural and systemic faultlines in higher education in South Africa.

She said activism had “exploded” because the exclusion of students on grounds of poverty and inequality had reached unacceptable proportions, and were not based on justice and fairness.

The Rhodes Trust has benefited some 8,000 students from 35 countries around the world since its inception in 1902, including southern Africa, Kenya, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, India and Germany. The US and southern Africa have the largest allocations of scholarships.

Phakeng, who took up office as Vice-Chancellor after the successful Fees-Must-Fall campaign and the Rhodes-Must-Fall protests and removal of the statue from campus, said the protests exemplified the new activism.

“It is true that we didn’t see them coming but, with hindsight, higher education was out of touch with students and with broader civil society, especially the poor,” she said. 

“And that is exactly how privilege works,” Phakeng said. ”We had our heads in metrics and compliance, bogged down by policy, audits, performance and corporatism.”

She said that university management had been in the thrall of neo-liberal ideas, both in terms of how the institutions were run and what was taught in the lecture rooms.

Phakeng’s observations have acquired a new poignancy as the Black Lives Matter tsunami sweeps campuses throughout the world and as universities and governments grapple with the challenge of structural change to undo racist attitudes, both latent and overt discrimination.

Against this backdrop, there is little doubt that Mandela’s endorsement of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation was an inspired attempt at reconciliation and reparation with a view to more effective nation-building.

Since its inception in 2003, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation has benefited more than 500 African postgraduate students with some spectacular results which are a tribute, inter alia, to the late Shaun Johnson, the Foundation’s first CEO, who died earlier this year shortly after stepping down in mid-2019.

The Rhodes Trust has benefited some 8,000 students from 35 countries around the world since its inception in 1902, including southern Africa, Kenya, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, India and Germany. The US and southern Africa have the largest allocations of scholarships.

The last word must go to Bonang Mohale, chairman of Bidvest and outgoing CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, who displays the sort of integrity in business that is so lacking in our politics.

In an article in Daily Maverick, Mohale has dared to reimagine the repurposing of our institutions of higher learning.

Mohale struck a similar note to Phakeng talking four years earlier.

“We are called upon, not to maintain the status quo nor be assimilated, but to be social justice activists, systemic change agents and defendants of democracy,” he said.

It is indeed a fine line between unplugged populism and focused radicalism, and leaders and public intellectuals such as Mandela, Machel, Mohale and Phakeng know where that line is.

Mohale said that Covid-19 had exposed the systematic structural inequalities in society. “It has merely removed the gloss and veneer to reveal that we have successfully transitioned into a new political epoch, but have not yet fundamentally transformed either the economy or the society,” he wrote.

He said that the country needed to take ownership of its children because the youth were its greatest resource.

“The problem today is not people being educated,” he said. “The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught, but not educated enough to question what they have been taught.”

He said South Africa’s history was shaped by a very painful combination of exclusion, subjugation and oppression.

“Twenty-six years into democracy, we have not, collectively, succeeded in eradicating the legacy of apartheid,” he said.

The student protests were a symptom of many societal ills and failures, but the state did not have the capacity to find a solution.

“While government may have had the financial and technical resources to map a way forward for the education sector, its ability to implement is severely constrained by political leadership and insufficient capacity,” wrote Mohale.

The shape of success would be a society which could imbue its institutions of higher learning with a higher purpose, palpable ethical leadership and values to underwrite an unambiguous cohesive culture – a special kind of multiculturalism, he said.

“What is needed is a culture in which the youth would feel wanted… in which they feel free to speak their mind without any fear of retribution or reprisals,” said Mohale.

“We have to start by extending trust to these young leaders that they are intellectually capable… that they must walk the very delicate tightrope between radical and respectful,” he said.

It is indeed a fine line between unplugged populism and focused radicalism, and leaders and public intellectuals such as Mandela, Machel, Mohale and Phakeng know where that line is.

That is why I believe that the Mandela Rhodes virtual statue, which Mandela endorsed in his twilight years, should stand tall as a beacon to excellence, vision and leadership in South Africa, and be celebrated in the magnanimous spirit in which it was founded. DM

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