All Rhodes Lead to Baltimore
What does it mean when one’s national symbols are the physical memory of oppression for another? What happens when “democracy” has two very different meanings for people living in the same country?
The recent hashtag #RhodesMustFall, referring to the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of the most notorious criminals and human rights violators in history, from The University of Cape Town’s campus, flooded social media in the last several weeks. Images of student protesters standing in solidarity to petition the university to remove the statue mark the rebirth of a consciousness around the historic oppression of Black South Africans by European colonists; a consciousness that says the youth in South Africa will no longer be silent about the particular way they are asked to endure the legacy of colonization, while matriculating in an educational system that does not recognize Black South Africans as valuable producers of knowledge.
For many unfamiliar with South Africa’s history, the energy around this event may seem unwarranted. An appreciation for the particular history of violent colonial oppression exacted upon Black South Africans in particular and people of color in South Africa in general, however, allows us to better understand what has taken place on The University of Cape Town’s campus. Anger doesn’t just erupt out of nowhere; there is always a reason. The anger and frustration the students at UCT expressed towards the Rhodes statue most likely stems from the oppressive history that precedes them.
Similarly, thousands of miles away in Baltimore, Maryland, Black youth rose up in protest against the violent murder of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore police, aptly hashtagged #BaltimoreUprising. Initially characterized as rioting, their actions have now been recognized by many as insurrections. What is the difference? Whereas a riot connotes violent, unorganized civil unrest often lacking a specific purpose, insurrections signify resistance against injustice, with the specific aim of seeking redress. If violence is the language of the state and the primary language that initiates a response to injustice, should we be surprised when people speak this language?
Rubble from demolished houses serving as a reminder of economic and geographic violence and the American flag itself become contested symbols of American history. So, when young people are pulled off buses, stranded after school, and accosted by the police, throwing rubble at the police force becomes a critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and state violence. Burning the American flag is in turn a challenge to democracy and a reminder of the horrific crimes, both past and present, that write the story of so called American exceptionalism. The events in Baltimore are deeply connected to the oppressive forces that Black South African youth have mobilized around; that force is rooted in Anti-Blackness. It affects Black people everywhere, so we must see the events in Baltimore as connected to the events in South Africa in order to understand its global significance and the way it is memorialized in national symbols.
Both South Africa and Baltimore, like many other places around the world, are in an iconographic war, waged primarily by young, specifically Black youth. South Africa’s historical memory has always been a contested sight, and while not violent, the student protests at UCT demonstrate the real change these young people are demanding in their country. These protests remind us that there are two Americas and two South Africas, and that one is tired of propping up the fantastical lie of an image of the other.
So, what does it mean for both America and South Africa to have contested iconographic histories? What does it mean to see the citizens of Baltimore as agents of a change that is long overdue? Why must Rhodes fall? Actually, Rhodes Must Fall because the end of the symbolic vestiges of colonization and oppression is upon us. Many South Africans in general, and young Black South Africans in particular, have said no to a colonial memory that still haunts them, and in doing so, they have offered us new forms of imagining change. While the fight for justice in Baltimore is still being fought, these insurrections remind us that a legacy of racism and vicious oppression is still very much alive in the United States; a legacy that will no longer be pacified and forgotten. We are living in a time where yet again we must either choose to engage this legacy and commit to real change for the good of future generations to come, or ignore this legacy and continue to relive the perpetual consequences of injustice.