Who, of those looking at the “bigger picture” with regard to Rhodes, say the same of Hitler? asks Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Durban - What to make of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town has become one of the most divisive issues in the country today.
Where one stands on the issue more likely reflects one’s values and not necessarily one’s politics.
It asks of you whether you believe a man who said “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 barbarians of South Africa” can use his money to blot out his bigotry.
Even Rhodes’s greatest defenders will struggle to argue that we are misinterpreting their hero if we conclude that he was a racist bigot.
Those who defend Rhodes are like someone who believes they are comforting orphaned children when they say of their parent’s murderer: “We know he exploited your parents and treated them like sub-humans; we know that he used his influence to force them off their land and thereby disinherited you, but remember he used some of the money to take the brightest among you to university, so he cannot be all that bad,”
People who make virtue of Rhodes’s bequeathing some of his wealth to programmes to uplift the descendants of those he had exploited, are saying that the end justifies the means.
That does not make him Robin Hood. It is more likely he just had a belated attack of conscience.
I doubt if they would take the same approach on other of history’s shady characters who also contributed to their society’s development – that is if you measure a society’s development by the bricks and mortar they see before them.
Consider for example that it was under Josef Stalin that Russia and its Soviet Union emerged from a feudal society to one that would be one of the most technologically developed in its day as exemplified by its launching the first artificial Earth satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957.
It was under the Stalinist Soviet Union that they sent Yuri Gagarin to space in April 1961, making him the first human being to journey into outer space.
Hands up if you believe that these developments make up for the millions of human beings who died under Stalin and his satellite regimes.
The same can be said about Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
When he took over the country, it was an ailing state suffering the devastation and humility of losing World War I.
By the time the dictator did the world a favour by killing himself, Germany had recovered to be one of the most industrialised countries in the world, with its citizens enjoying a greater standard of life than they had at any other time in that country’s history.
In Hitler’s time Germany constructed oil and coal refineries, as well as factories for the recycling, refining and smelting of steel and aluminium.
Scientists devised synthetic or artificial substitutes for materials and goods Germany could not produce herself.
They perfected a technique for synthesising petrol from coal.
They found innovative alternatives to their shortages such as producing coffee from ground roasted acorns and using mint and raspberry leaves to make tea.
They also hosted the most modern Olympics of their time.
Again, how many of those who are willing to look at the “bigger picture” with regard to Rhodes are willing to say the same about Hitler?
Back home we can attest to the developments like the Jan Smuts and Ben Schoeman highways, the creation of Sasol, Denel and the Pelindaba nuclear facility as examples of great strides that South Africa was able to achieve in a relatively short period.
We also know that it was in the same period that the same government that was in the forefront of these undeniable leaps in making us a modern state, was also forcibly removing people from land they and their ancestors had occupied from time immemorial.
It was at this time that the government was proudly saying it had created a system of education to make the majority of its citizens “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
We see the glorious universities of Cape Town where Rhodes’s offending statue stands, Stellenbosch where apartheid was crafted into an ideology but also where the performers of the first penile transplant came from.
History is not like those fairy tales where Cinderella is always the good girl and her ugly stepsisters are always bad.
Sometimes bad people like Rhodes do good things like making money available for the furtherance of the education of a people.
Our values will determine where in the good/bad scale we will remember them.
We may not “rewrite” history, but we can choose how we remember historical figures.
I choose to remember Rhodes as a man who believed black people were not deserving of the same human rights other human beings enjoyed.
I remember him as a man who used his influence and wealth to start the first phases of black economic disempowerment by forcing people off their land (their wealth) to work as virtual slaves in the mines that he and others like him ran.
I remember Rhodes as a man whose place in history is as safe as that of Hitler, Stalin, Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot and Idi Amin.
All of these fellows we will never forget, but make no mistake, we will never remember with fondness.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is editor of The Mercury. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom