About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

05 April 2015

Thoughts on Rhodes

Commemorations of Cecil John Rhodes are quite prominent at Univsersity of Cape Town (UCT) - not only the statue overlooking the Cape towards Cairo on the lower bounds of Jammie Steps (the subject of the #RhodesMustFall campaign) but also above the university at the very scenic Rhodes Memorial. 

Rhodes is not the only colonial figure to be commemorated in South Africa or around the world; there are statues of colonial era Kings and Queens across the various colonies; statues of explorers who opened up the world for colonialism such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Livingstone in addition to the very specific colonialists, such as Rhodes, who drove for the expansion and exploitation of the colonies.

Nor is Rhodes and his most successful company - De Beers - the only company that profited from the exploitation of inhumane and racist policies. There are banks (e.g. JP Morgan Chase and Barclays) and insurance conglomerates (e.g. AIG and US Life) that profited from the slave trade; companies such as IBM, Porsche and Volkswagen that profited from Nazi era Germany and many other similar arrangements across the recent past. Entire economies and civil engineering marvels have been built underwritten by slavery and indentured labour without a whiff of modern human rights considerations.

At a recent UCT event, the vice chancellor, Dr Max Price, commented that "Rhodes is to black people in South Africa what Hitler is to Jews". On that comparison, it is incomprehensible that a statue of Adolf Hitler would still stand  in front of the entrance of a major German university 20 years after WW2. But at the same time, I do not support the German approach of erasing all mentions of nazism and its associated symbols. Erasing historical details doesn't make history go away - and instead of learning from the past, we end up burying our heads in the sand. UCT itself has changed from the intent of Rhodes' legacy - it is no longer just an institution for white males - but that doesn't mean that his other inexcusable legacies should be forgotten.

And the crux of the debate about Rhodes is more than the statue - it is about transformation of the academic staff. The fact is, the university's own policies and practices makes it difficult to transform. Appointing only staff based on retirements and vacancies means that promising "black" (in the South African EE speak) PhD and Masters students are not retained to drive the transformation. The fact that many of these students are also the first of their families to go to university and are often from financially struggling backgrounds, means that they have obligations that the stipend from a postdoctoral post, even if it is offered, won't be enough. Ultimately, Rhodes' fall won't be enough to address the underlying cause of the protest - and reducing the protest to one of simply about the statue is equally counter productive.

UCT has engaged in various forums on the question of what next. As an alumni I have a vested interest that UCT gets it right. For the statue, I would propose the way of Budapest's Soviet Statue Park. At the fall of communism various Soviet statues were collected and curated in a large outdoor park. Perhaps we can do the same - collect all the colonial (and apartheid) statues and create an outdoor park - perhaps even reuse Rhodes Memorial - so that the deeds and the context of their deeds are not forgotten; and future generations can continue to learn about the history and the implications of their deeds.

Academic staff transformation is a far trickier subject - as this is one area that does take a long time to realise. Academics won't be produced overnight - professors will still take time to write publications and supervise PhD students, and while they can be imported from various other universities; that approach doesn't necessarily improve transformation across South Africa - which should be an equal goal. And the fact that UCT has dithered in this area for so long means that this will still take time to come. 

My suggestion on the matter - create a fund to properly employ "black" graduates from UCT and beyond regardless of the department's vacancies. There is always a need to grow research capacity; so excess staff is not really a problem. These new members of staff can then move on as vacancies do come out - but now with experience and research credits under their belt, so they are no longer prejudiced by timing and lack of experience. This program cannot be a postdoctoral year - it needs to be equivalent of at least a lecturer position that contracts for at least 3 years and staff performance is evaluated in the same manner. Thus instead of chasing away the grads into the corporate workplace, hopefully there will be sufficient retention towards building a meaningful academic staff transformation; and a program that can have meaningful impact across South Africa. And, if there was such a fund, I would contribute.