Adekeye Adebajo, Business Day
THIS year marks the 110th anniversary of the founding of Rhodes University, which was created with Cecil Rhodes’s wealth and named after him.
It is also the 86th anniversary of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) relocation to Rhodes’ estate, which he bequeathed to it. Both universities continue to grapple with transformation, even as they largely ignore these lingering historical connections. While many symbols of Afrikaner supremacy have been removed, the legacy of the greatest symbol of British imperialism — Rhodes — remains surprisingly uncontested.
Rhodes dispossessed black people of their ancestral lands in modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia through aggressive and duplicitous means, stealing 9-million square kilometres of black land in one of the most ignominious "land grabs" in history. He was an unscrupulous businessman and a crude racist. Zambia and Zimbabwe removed statues of him from their streets after independence, but he still lies buried in Zimbabwe’s Matopos Hills.
Rhodes University in Grahamstown is named after this ruthless imperialist. It opened in 1904, with the Rhodes Trust financing its establishment. Rhodes’s racist and destructive lieutenant, Leander Jameson, helped secure the funding.
The psychopathic Jameson had led the "scorched earth" policies in the genocidal conquest of Zimbabwe in the 1890s. Inspired by Rhodes’s legacy, the university was established to "extend and strengthen the imperial idea in South Africa" and to counter Afrikaner influence in the Western Cape. As historian Paul Maylam has shown, for much of its existence, Rhodes University willingly maintained segregation, with its lily-white council unanimously refusing to admit "non-European" students in 1933. The body agreed to accept "non-Europeans" only in "exceptional circumstances" 14 years later. In 1954, Rhodes University awarded an honorary doctorate to apartheid’s education minister, JH Viljoen; and eight years later, to its repressive justice minister, CR Swart.
Nelson Mandela received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in 2002 — like apartheid-supporting white businesses, universities acted pragmatically to embrace the new order. Rhodes University’s imperial connections were reinforced by its commemoration of Rhodesia’s "Founder’s Day". An effort to change the university’s name in 1994 was soundly defeated in its senate.
UCT moved to Rhodes’s Groote Schuur estate in 1928. The imperialist had wanted to build a university on the foothills of Table Mountain. UCT was the posthumous fulfilment of this dream.
A bust of Rhodes still stands proudly on the university’s upper campus 80 years after it was first erected. Should UCT perhaps follow Rhodes University’s example and remove this monstrosity?
UCT’s main hall, in which graduation ceremonies take place, was financed by the Rhodes Trust, and is remarkably still named after Jameson. This was the same man whose notorious "Jameson Raid" of 1895 sought to overthrow Paul Kruger’s Transvaal republic to gain control of its gold mines, resulting in the disgraceful end of Rhodes’s premiership of the Cape colony. Like Rhodes University, UCT was also slow to admit black students, accepting only 40 by 1937, and figures remained low into the 1980s.
Connecting Rhodes University and UCT is not only Jameson but Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of the Rhodes-affiliated Anglo American for 25 years until 1982. He delivered the Cecil Rhodes commemoration lecture at Rhodes University in 1970, disingenuously condoning the excesses of the racist imperialist in his dealings with "tribal, barbarous people". Oppenheimer was chancellor of UCT from 1967 to 1999, and regarded Africa as being "backward" until the Europeans arrived to "civilise" it.
Some UCT students demonstrated against his "racist capitalism" and exploitation of mine workers.
UCT’s Institute of African Studies is still named after Oppenheimer. In an infamous incident in 1968 — for which UCT later apologised — its council caved in to pressure from the apartheid regime, and withdrew its prior offer of a senior lecturing position to Archie Mafeje. Given this history, UCT’s slogan of promoting "Afropolitanism" seems somewhat vacuous, with two-thirds of its faculty still consisting of white professors.