South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, criticised a campaign to remove a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college.
The move to remove the statue follows a similar campaign at the University of Cape Town, where a statue of Rhodes has already been taken down, and whose “Rhodes Must Fall” initiative now aims to tackle institutional racism.
De Klerk described the student-led plan, whose British arm is called “Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford” as “folly”.
“If the political correctness of today were applied consistently, very few of Oxford’s great figures would pass scrutiny,” he wrote in a letter to The Times newspaper.
“We do not commemorate historic figures for their ability to measure up to current conceptions of political correctness, but because of their actual impact on history,” added de Klerk, who was instrumental in ending racial segregation in South Africa under apartheid.
Rhodes, a believer in Anglo-Saxon supremacy, was a major driver of British territorial expansion in southern Africa and a key player in the Boer Wars, which pitted Britain against the Dutch-origin Boers.
Thousands were killed in a conflict which became infamous for Britain’s use of concentration camps, where many blacks and thousands of Boer civilians, forefathers of today’s Afrikaners, were held.
“My people — the Afrikaners — have greater reason to dislike Rhodes than anyone else. He was the architect of the Anglo-Boer War that had a disastrous impact on our people,” De Klerk wrote.
“Yet the National Party government never thought of removing his name from our history,” he added, referring to his former party.
Rhodes, founder of the De Beers diamond company, went on to bequeath a substantial sum to Oxford University to pay for scholarships that still carry his name, and his statue adorns the facade of Oriel College.
Writing in an opinion piece for the Times, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’s Chi Chi Shi said the campaign was not just to remove the statue, but was part of “reckoning with the past”.
“Popular history sanitises the brutal facts of colonialism and those who profited are recast as heroes,” Shi wrote.
“Much of Britain’s history rests on an unsavoury pile of native corpses, of lands pillaged by imperialist megalomaniacs. To maintain the rose-tinted myths of colonialism, its victims must be silenced.”
In a statement last week, Oriel college said Rhodes’ world view stood in “absolute contrast” with the ethos of the scholarship programme and the university today, and said it would apply to remove a plaque honouring Rhodes.
More importantly, the college said it would conduct a six-month “listening exercise” to decide the fate of the statue.
“If Oriel now finds Rhodes so reprehensible,” De Klerk wrote, “would the honourable solution not be to return his bequest, plus interest, to the victims of British imperialism in southern Africa?”