Visit Harvard university, and you'll see a crowd of tourists venerating the John Harvard statue in the yard by rubbing the toe of the left shoe for luck. For the students, however, the statue is a big joke. It is a rite of passage for students to urinate on the statue at night. Each part of the statue's inscription, which reads "John Harvard, Founder, 1638," is essentially false. The statue is does not bear the likeness of John Harvard, but of a Harvard student who posed for the sculptor in the 1800s. John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University. And the university was not founded in 1638. Nevertheless, clergyman John Harvard is honored because he left what was then a large sum of money (£780) and his 320-volume scholar's library to the school, which had recently been undertaken, when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 30.
John Harvard is a reminder that statues on university campuses are both a way to give reverence to something, and a way of giving pigeons something to crap on and students something to piss on. Urinating on the statue is part of the contempt for authority and tradition that goes along with adolescence. But graduating students also remove their caps as they pass the statue during the annual graduation procession as a gesture of respect.
While universities and scholarship are fundamentally about the preservation of heritage, they are also about engaging critically-and sometimes irreverently-with history. A scholarly approach to history is to understand its complexity, not to reduce it to one narrative. Universities preserve both the good and the bad of our heritage so that people can learn from it. But when we dismantle that heritage, there is nothing left to engage, to study, or to lampoon.
If we in the new South Africa become like Africa's version of ISIS, destroying statues that predate us and that we find offensive, then scholars who want to study Africa won't come to Africa anymore, because they won't be able to find African history here anymore.
The wisdom of the transition from Apartheid that Nelson Mandela envisioned and led was that South Africa decided not to dabble around in this kind of destructive, reductionist nonsense. On the contrary, Mandela formed the Mandela Rhodes Foundation to-in the words of then U.S. President Bill Clinton-"bring some of Rhodes' wealth back to its origins and help build the new South Africa." At the launch of the initiative, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "It is extraordinary to see the two names united together in The Mandela Rhodes Foundation ... When we see the past and the present joined together in order to give the Rhodes Trust new life for the future, we see in that the possibility of overcoming the injustices that our world suffers."
If we're going to remove the Rhodes statue, why not reject all of Rhodes' inheritance. There are always positives and negatives to a heritage, but why don't we just demolish the whole damn thing? The entire UCT campus was Rhodes' property. He donated it. Why don't we just bulldoze it? Let's give back his land and his money, and disqualify UCT students from all Rhodes scholarships in future. That would downgrade the institution-appropriately, mind you, to reflect the degraded thinking that takes place there. We're already going to spend millions removing the statue that could be better spent on bursaries and scholarships.
Or better yet, why don't we just do what bright young scholars do everywhere. Keep the statue. Learn about it. And yes-parody, lampoon, and even piss on it. Laugh that its head is covered in pigeon shit. The statue is on the one hand triumphalist and dignified, with its equestrian themes and central placement. But there is also something lonely, even pitiable, about it.
The inscription on the statue is the verse titled "Capetown" from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It reads "Hail! Snatched and bartered oft from hand to hand// I dream my dream, by rock and heath and pine // Of Empire to the northward. Ay, one land // From Lion's Head to Line!" The statue shows Rhodes sitting on his perch, dreaming of a vast British Empire stretching from Cape Town to Egypt. Of course, we know today that that dream was futile. The British lost. Colonialism ended, failed, and was disgraced.
But that's the thing-our students don't get the irony. They don't understand the joke. They don't know how to be irreverent, wry, or witty. Desecration without destruction is too subtle for them. Rather than emulating artist Beezy Bailey and dressing the statue as a young Xhosa initiate or poking gentle fun at their heritage, our students prefer to emulate ISIS and grab a sledgehammer.
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