September 24, 2015

"Rhodes Must Fall" and Memphis's Confederate Monuments

Cecil John Rhodes is both famous and infamous in South Africa. He is famous as an arch-imperialist, involved in the colonial expansion in Southern Africa in the late 19th century that generated much of the economic infrastructure that still underlies South Africa today. He is infamous also as an arch-imperialist, involved in the subjugation of native Africans to help drive economic expansion, generating much of the social division that has plagued this country.

When I arrived in South Africa two months ago, I didn't anticipate thinking much about Cecil John Rhodes, who died more than a century ago. Yet the local news was abuzz with coverage of a movement called Rhodes Must Fall.

Furious over a campus display of a symbol of a colonial and oppressive past, black students at the University of Cape Town organized to demand the removal of a Rhodes statue. After a month of protest, the statue was removed by the university. The Rhodes Must Fall movement has spread to other campuses and communities in South Africa and beyond, targeting not only Rhodes but also other figures from complicated pasts.

All of this resonated with a Memphian abroad because of our own experience with a statue of a long-deceased famous and infamous man. There was some comfort in seeing a society 8,000 miles from home grapple with the same difficult issues. Particularly in places with deep histories of division, a universal part of confronting that past is struggling with persistent symbols of it. Freed from my identity as a Memphian, I am able to follow the Rhodes story without my own local baggage and preconceptions.

Read the full article here...