Saturday, 12 March 2016

If We Value Education, Rhodes Must Fall

One morning in 1986, Themba Plaatjie made a quick dash home from school for a peanut butter sandwich. His mother remembers him spreading the peanut butter on the bread and then - like distracted children the world over - he dashed out again, leaving the dirty knife lying on the counter. The next thing his mother heard was ‘uThemba, uThemba, nank’uThemba bamdubule!’ - ‘This is Themba! This is Themba! They have shot Themba!’

Themba Plaatjie was eleven-years-old when he was murdered by a white policeman in apartheid South Africa. There is a terrible poignancy in the fact that it was on his way back to school that the little boy was slain, because Themba is just one of tens of millions of black African children whose education was denied them by a system that even used the Bible to justify their subjugation: 'You shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God' (Joshua 9:23). 

Like Themba, many hundreds of black children had their education denied in the most callous manner possible - their own murder. Another of those children was Hector Pieterson, the first of 176 killed during the Soweto uprising in 1976, when black high school children protested against Afrikaans becoming the main language of instruction in their schools. Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector being carried - his school uniform covered in blood, his screaming sister running alongside - was seen all over the world and galvanised the antiapartheid movement like few other images. 

Hector Pieterson in the arms of his friend Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector's sister Antoinette on the left.
Most black children had their education denied in quieter, but no less insidious, ways: underfunded schools, a lack of textbooks, badly trained teachers, the necessity to work to support their families rather than indulge in the luxury of sitting in a classroom. This is what the history of education looks like for black South Africans: it is a history fraught with brutality, shot through with cruelty, and drenched with blood.

But there is another side to the story of education in South Africa, and that part of the story lines the walls of the study in my parents’ house: their degree certificates from Rhodes University, a small but prestigious institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In the same year that Hector Pieterson was butchered, my white parents graduated from a university named after Cecil Rhodes, a man who thought that people like Themba and Hector were less than fully human: 'I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world,' he wrote, 'And that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.' As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes limited the amount of land that black Africans could legally own and simultaneously increased the property qualifications to be allowed to vote, setting up a disenfranchisement of black South Africans that would last until 1994.

I am an indirect but enormous beneficiary of Rhodes’ policies. I have grown up with all the advantages that come from having educated parents: the economic rewards of skilled work, and all the more subtle benefits of being able to negotiate a path through the complexities of the world. My parents’ education is not unrelated to the stories of Hector Pieterson and Themba Plaatjie: it is an education that was paid for by the punishing labour of black miners in Rhodes’ diamond mines; it is an education that rests heavily on the graves of those two boys and countless others like them.

In her book ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, the South African psychologist and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela tells the story of Themba Plaatjie, and discusses the psychological phenomenon of ‘lived trauma’. Those of us who have not experienced the kind of intense trauma suffered by Themba Plaatjie’s family often think of trauma as an historical event, as if the murder of a loved one is something that is looked back on and remembered. But for those who experience trauma, Gobodo-Madikezela explains that the trauma does not end with the event that creates it: it stays in the present, following those left behind like a shadow until they reach their own end. 

When Themba’s mother, Mrs Plaatjie, relates the story of her son’s murder to Gobodo-Madikezela, she drifts back and forth between past and present tenses: “He ran out… He is still chewing his bread… Now I am dazed…” When she describes the first moment she saw her son with no life left in his body, the sentence she uses is, “Here is my son” - as if the boy’s body is in front of her at that moment, a mark on her retinas that will never wash away. In the mind of his mother, Themba Plaatjie wasn’t only murdered in 1986: he is being murdered still.

Those who defend Rhodes’ statues argue that he is a part of history, that we should not erase the past, however morally bankrupt it may look with the benefit of hindsight. The flaw in this idea lies in that word ‘history’ - because what many black South Africans involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign tell us is that Cecil Rhodes’ ideas are not history, they are lived trauma for millions of African people. It is a kind of damage that is present every time a black African watches a white person get a better job and a better home because they are better educated; it is there every time a black African walks past the statue of a man who ruthlessly denied the humanity of her ancestors. Rhodes' defenders claim that we will forget how terrible he was if we don't have statues to remind us, but black Africans are no more likely to forget what Rhodes stood for than Mrs Plaatjie is likely to forget that her child was shot dead on his way to school.

Protests against the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

As a beneficiary of Cecil Rhodes’ white supremacist ideas, I cannot be grateful to him for the benefits he gave to my family because they were never his to give. Rhodes was nothing but a thief: he stole land, he stole diamonds, and he stole human potential. I also know that however great his contribution to universities in Britain and South Africa, it is greatly outweighed by the crimes he committed against education, for even if his scholarships last for a thousand years they will never educate more than the millions of black Africans whose acquisition of knowledge was made completely impossible by the kind of ideas that he invented, supported, and inspired. 

An enemy of education like Cecil Rhodes has no business being immortalised in the grounds of the world’s best universities, and it is in the pursuit of real education - the kind of education, like that delivered by Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, which expands our empathy and deepens our understanding of the lives of others - that I hope we will come to see that preserving the legacy of a dead white racist is not worth the tiniest hair on the head of the smallest black schoolchild in Africa. If we are to erect statues in our institutions of learning, they should be of the likes of Themba Plaatjie and Hector Pieterson - for it is from them, not Cecil Rhodes, that we still have the most to learn.