There are differing views. In a statement released yesterday, Wilmot James, a member of parliament for South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, had this to say:

Why not build a statue of another figure that engages Rhodes in perpetual conversation? This would symbolize the dialogue and reflection that must happen in each generation, not in the absence of the past, but precisely because of it. Righteousness is not the sole preserve of some; neither is morality the possession of the victors or rulers of the day. We must also, as Mandela did so admirably, incorporate the past into a vision for the future.

James’ statement points to questions that have been asked by some: Why focus on a statue of a dead man? Can we not keep it to remind us of our gruesome past?

James also invoked the name of Mandela. Of course, invoking Mandela isn’t new. One of the critiques of Mandela’s legacy is his insistence on national reconciliation as a tool for cohesion in modern day South Africa – a project which has largely failed.

Mandela’s Rhodes

But there is another contradiction.

In 2002, the Rhodes Trust, a body entrusted with carrying out the philanthropic wishes of Rhodes throughout the Commonwealth, proposed a partnership with Nelson Mandela.

The two historical figures: Rhodes the arch plunderer and expansionist, and Mandela the giant reformer, would co-join their legacies to form the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. This foundation, fuelled by a bequest of about $28 million dollars by the Rhodes Trust, would carry out projects in education and developing South Africa’s young leaders.

What James is calling for – “another figure that engages Rhodes in perputual conversation” – already exists through the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Why did Mandela extend his legacy, one that is rooted in legitimacy and moral courage, to restore relevance to Rhodes’ legacy?

He no longer lives, and asking this question is unhelpful.

The question now belongs to my generation, South Africa’s middle children: born not close enough to claim legitimate allegiance to South Africa’s grand struggle; but not too distant to ignore its complexities.

The case for the removal of the statue is not only about the statue. It is about power: who has it, who gets to exercise it and how it manifests itself. And symbols are a powerful tool for exhibiting power. I too, like many South Africans, young and old, have encountered this subtle lash of power that exhibits a history of dispossession and displacement of a people.

The removal of Rhodes’ statue would not airbrush him out of South Africa’s history. Like Hendrik Verwoerd and Louis Botha, their place in history needs no reaffirming. Modern day South Africa–a country where income and access to opportunity continues to be skwewed across racial lines–is the best monument to their legacy.

#RhodesMustFall continues, and South Africa’s middle children are searching for their own answers. The images of General Louis Botha, Cecil John Rhodes and many other divisive figures may soon become a sight of the past, a sign of our past—not our present and future. I hope.

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