Thursday, 2 April 2015

Rhodes, Filth, and the Politics of Memory

Over the High Street entrance to my college in Oxford stands a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, archimperialist of the nineteenth century, a man who wanted to make it possible to travel from the Cape to Cairo without ever having to leave British territory. Rhodes was, without doubt, the source of much evil in the history of Southern Africa. The legislation that he introduced as prime minister of the Cape Colony pushed black people off their land and raised the property qualification that they needed to satisfy in order to vote. These were laws which helped lay the foundations of apartheid. 
The statue of Cecil John Rhodes 
being covered by protestors. 
The statue is now covered over 
with wooden boards. 

Another statue of Rhodes, not in Oxford, but on the southern tip of the African continent, has become the focal point of a student protest movement whose name and rallying cry is ‘Rhodes Must Fall’. Last month, this statue, sitting in the middle of the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), had a bucket of poo thrown over it. Since then, students have been calling loudly for the removal of Rhodes’ image as part of the ‘decolonisation' of the university more generally.

Critics of 'Rhodes Must Fall' claim that the campaigners are attempting to ‘cleanse history of its veracity’. However, it is simply not true that pulling down the statue of Rhodes is the same as pretending that the acropolis or the forum weren’t 'built by the sweat of slaves and the grinding oppression of the slaveowners'. I've read no one suggesting that Rhodes' name should be removed from the history books, only that it is time to stop publicly glorifying those men who helped to create the sorts of injustices and inequalities that still characterise so much of South African society. 

That Rhodes still sits at the heart of the UCT campus is emblematic of the way that the economic, academic and social privileges of white South Africa persist even in 2015. Just like other white South Africans, my life and career in the academy has been made easier by these privileges. In a country where nearly 80% of the population is black, only 3% of academic staff at UCT are, and there is only one black woman who holds the title of full professor, while 111 white men can lay claim to this honour.

The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus with 
his wife, Julia Domna, and sons, the future 
emperors Geta and Caracalla. Geta's face 
has been erased, probably after he was 
murdered by his brother and made the object 
of damnatio memoriae.
Statues, like all symbols, have power. This is something that the Romans knew well. When they deposed ‘bad emperors’ or political enemies they also deposed their statues. Statues could be mutilated or torn down, portraits erased, names scratched off the coins and inscriptions that celebrated the fallen tyrant’s achievements. This is often referred to as damnatio memoriae, literally ‘damnation of memory’. 

Memoria meant more for the Romans than the word ‘memory’ really gets across. It was the key to a kind of afterlife, a way that everyone, from freed slaves to emperors, could ensure that they lived on, even if only in the memories of the people that passed by their tombs, saw their statues, or read inscriptions celebrating their deeds. Memory sanctions shut down routes to this sort of immortality by erasing or defacing a person’s name or image. For emperors, who could normally expect to join the gods after they died, this was a clear sign that there was no room for them in heaven.

Lucius Aelius Sejanus had memory sanctions 
imposed on him after a conspiracy to overthrow 
the emperor Tiberius failed. This coin was later 
defaced to remove his name.
Sometimes the aim of this was oblivion, sometimes a visible show of disrespect. Of course, this can make it difficult for historians to study certain aspects of the past. However, damnatio memoriae shouldn’t be thought of as a veil that hides historical truth. Removing this veil would not reveal the past to us in perfect clarity. 

Far from obscuring our view of history, how the Romans treated images of 'bad emperors' is the very stuff of history. Coins like the one above or statues like the one below tell us much more about the past than they would if they had been left unaltered. To assume that their defacement in some way detracts from their historical value is to forget that Roman emperors carefully managed the way they appeared in public art. Even before these images were altered they were not uncomplicated records that simply told THE truth. 

Bust of the emperor Caligula. The statue's
eyes have been gouged out and the face has
been attacked.
The same is true in Rhodes' case. Sitting where it does now, his statue tells only one history. Keeping it there does not give us a clear vision of South Africa's past. But, throwing poo at it or removing it does tell us something about how the present understands and relates to this past. The Romans knew that a statue could keep a man and his deeds alive even after he was long dead. It could set him amongst the gods or send him to Hades. The question that South Africans have to ask is which of these two fates they wish for Rhodes and his legacy.

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