‘Cecil Rhodes and the Politics of Reconciliation’, by Professor Jonathan Clark

Cecil Rhodes and the Politics of Reconciliation

Professor Jonathan Clark

Thursday 22nd January 2012: Dirt and neglect, those wise counsellors, long obscured the statue of Cecil Rhodes that graces the High Street front of Oriel College, Oxford. Cleanliness and rationality have now revealed it. So the activists have noticed a target, and its removal has become a Cause in an age that famously neglects its more practical problems.

But what practical good would its removal do? It would do nothing for the suffering people of Africa. Their problems are, today, domestic: the endemic corruption, subverting the rule of law and free speech, the wars, the religious conflicts, the failed states. It could hardly be argued that western imperialism is still a force in African affairs. No figure remotely like Rhodes now bestrides the continent. Indeed, his vision of unity, stability and international trade are all too lacking.

Would removing the statue have a symbolic value? Again, this is hard to see. Western imperialism has not exactly been lacking in its critics. Could it be more reviled than it is? Oxford University bends over backwards not to be associated with any such goals, however much free trade, honest government and stable currencies might contribute to future African economic growth. Anti-imperialists are not so much pushing at an unlocked door; they are marching through a doorway from which all traces of a door have long ago disappeared.

That, of course, is why the issue is so useful for moral consciences. They only need stigmatise Rhodes to become, themselves, on the side of the angels. They are beyond criticism. When a leading campaigner against the statue was revealed as being a Rhodes scholar, I heard no voices from Oriel demand that he first return to the poor of Africa the funds that he had received from the Rhodes Trust before denouncing its founder.

What should the British do in Britain? Here, it is not clear how a principled line could be drawn at statuary. The logical consequence of the destruction of Rhodes’ statue would therefore be a purge of the National Portrait Gallery: the images of all those individuals who currently offend some temporarily ascendant norm could easily be consigned to the flames. The same could be done to the religious art in the National Gallery next door. Architecture would follow. We would quickly be in the world of Islamic State, dynamiting the monuments of past civilizations. It would be interesting, at least, to know who is in favour of such a course of action.

What should Africans do in Africa? Art is indeed symbolic. The systematic destruction of symbols and images of western rule would give temporary delight, but they would only be replaced with the equivalent of the public art of North Korea or of Stalin’s Russia. Yet such art effectively symbolises a new public culture hostile to prosperity and trade.

Alternatively, Africa might embrace its heritage, warts and all, as the English uneasily came to accept the Roman and Norman conquests. Exactly that approach was adopted by an African whose moral credentials are beyond challenge, Nelson Mandela. He established in South Africa the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, joining his name with the one that the activists now seek to revile, using some of the resources of the Rhodes Trust within his country to advance his ideals. With the Rhodes Trust, announces the MRF, ‘we share common heritage’. Instead of demolishing Rhodes’ statue, Oriel should erect next to it a statue of Mandela, and modify the first so that the two shake hands. Now, that would be symbolism.

*Professor Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British and American History at Kansas University. Previously, he was a fellow at both Peterhouse, Cambridge and All Souls, Oxford. His publications include English Society 1660–1832: Religion, Ideology and Politics During the Ancien Regime (2nd ed., 2000).

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