Abusing Mandela to Absolve Rhodes

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When Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) Oxford activists first demanded the removal of a statue of settler colonist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College in 2016 as part of a manifesto calling for a decolonisation of the curriculum and improved representation of black and ethnic minority students and staff, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten suggested that if they were not willing to embrace ‘freedom of thought’ they might ‘think about being educated elsewhere’.

Four years on, following the unceremonious dunking of the statue of Bristol’s Edward Colston into the River Avon and amidst the new terrain of debate made possible by the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, he seems to have changed tack. Speaking on a segment of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on which I also appeared, Patten invoked Nelson Mandela’s support for the work of the Rhodes Trust to defend the beleaguered colonist. He described how when Mandela signed the agreement that established the Mandela Rhodes Foundation—a joint philanthropic initiative of the Mandela Foundation and the Rhodes Trust—he reportedly looked at a photograph of Rhodes and said ‘Cecil, you and I are going to have to work together now.’

This. for Patten, provided the clinching argument for an acceptance of Rhodes’s iconographic endurance: ‘if it was alright for Mandela then I have to say it’s pretty well alright for me.’

Even as I began writing this response to Patten’s disingenuous invocation of Mandela, which I was not given an opportunity to rebut on air, Mandela came to be conscripted repeatedly in public discourse to protect Rhodes. The day after the Radio 4 interview, Oxford Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson also invoked Mandela to push back against RMF’s demands, suggesting that he would have ‘firmly disagreed’ with the aims of the campaign given his collaboration with the Rhodes Trust.

Meanwhile, a Guardian investigation published two days later revealed that Historic England, the body responsible for advising on which statues and memorials should be protected through listing, had backed proposals to protect a Rhodes memorial plaque affixed to the Oriel-owned house in which he had lived in 1881, when demands for its removal were first raised in 2016. The then director of listing Roger Bowdler recommended offsetting the negative publicity that might result from being seen to support Rhodes by announcing ‘pro-African’ listings at the same time. In an email to colleagues, he writes ‘Now there’s a challenge—put your thinking cap on! Apparently there is a bust of Mandela on the South Bank [in London] for starters…’ Historic England eventually recommended against listing the Rhodes plaque. Nonetheless, its internal discussions provide yet another instance in which Mandela was thought handy for the purpose of safeguarding Rhodes.

Even taking Patten at his word in his recollection of Mandela’s attitude towards Rhodes, it is impossible to know the exact proportion in which it might have been animated by pragmatism and principle. Whatever that balance, his nod to ‘Cecil’ was less a reference to the man himself than to the white minority community that continued to own a disproportionate share of land and capital, whose cooperation he felt he needed to maintain peace and the viability of the post-apartheid state in a global capitalist system.

From Toussaint L’Ouverture onwards, virtually every leader of a liberation struggle has bumped up against the structural constraints of the world system and been forced to decide how much they were willing to accommodate them. There is something ugly in the spectre of their opponents—pillars of the racial capitalist system against which they battled—invoking these tortured compromises as evidence of their own absolution.

Even if forgiveness is the appropriate term for what Mandela did, the loud and insistent proclamation by the colonisers that they have been forgiven betrays an anxiety that the door to the colonial past has not been shut firmly enough.

But what exactly follows if Patten and Richardson are correct that Mandela might not have approved of RMF? It is salutary to recall that RMF Oxford was (and remains) a gesture of solidarity with the movement that first bore this name, which had erupted in the University of Cape Town (UCT) a year earlier. That movement also took aim at a statue of Rhodes that sat brooding at the entrance to UCT, which it succeeded in toppling besides also drawing attention to the lack of progress on racial justice in South African universities following the end of apartheid.

It is instructive to note that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was meant to have aided the country’s transition to democracy, never turned its attention to universities even as it scrutinised the complicity in apartheid of other social sectors, arguably perpetuating the racist status quo in educational institutions insofar as the curriculum and the racial demographics of staff and students were concerned. As RMF gathered strength, it morphed into a national movement that would be called Fees Must Fall (FMF), leading currents of which are deeply critical of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on account of its rapprochement with neoliberalism. In the context of the university, this has manifested itself in struggles against fee hikes, inadequate student housing and the outsourcing of core services amongst other things.

More generally, the great divide in South African politics between those who support the non-racial, neoliberal order inaugurated by Mandela and the ANC, and those like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who view it as a betrayal of the liberation struggle also runs through its student movements. FMF activists are far closer to the politics of the EFF and ideas of black consciousness articulated by Steve Biko than they are to the reconciliatory politics of Mandela. As many of them explained, ‘when we say fees must fall we mean we want the land back.’

To invoke Mandela to shut down RMF Oxford, as Patten and Richardson have attempted to do, when Rhodes Must Fall and its successor movements in South Africa were spurred largely by disappointment and disillusionment with the legacies of Mandela, is there profoundly ironic. Of course Patten and Richardson are entitled to takes sides in the South African debates. It wouldn’t be the first time that colonisers have listened to the native voices they most want to hear.

Bowdler’s invocation of Mandela in Historic England’s discussion of the politics of listing is of a different order. Here we are presented with a crudely utilitarian calculus that assumes that the offence felt by some as a result of the honouring of figures associated with colonialism and apartheid might be assuaged by giving equivalent recognition to their opponents. It is the heritage industry’s version of Trump’s infamous observation in response to the violence that white supremacists inflicted on antiracism activists during protests against Confederate statues in 2017 that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’.

Rahul Rao is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS University of London. He is the author of Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (2020) and Third World Protest: Between Home and the World (2010), both published by Oxford University Press. He is a member of the Radical Philosophy collective.