When the Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa in March 2015 I followed it with keen interest. This was a movement of students from the University of Cape Town protesting for the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the university grounds. The students saw the statue as a symbol of the violence of colonialism that had no place in a multi-racial institution of a predominantly black country. They also protested for education to be decolonised and institutional racism addressed within the university structure. The Rhodes Must Fall movement eventually spread across South Africa and internationally, as far as Oxford University.
It was amazing to watch the formerly colonised fearlessly confront the most prominent symbol of colonisation in Southern Africa and loudly call for transformation. It was a revolution sparked by historical injustices that were never rightly solved. The movement quickly achieved victory when the statue was removed from the University of Cape Town within a month. Apparently the symbol of empire could not withstand the pressure of black rage.
As I recall the events of Rhodes Must Fall, I cannot help thinking of Zimbabwe’s own problematic relationship with Cecil Rhodes. It was the Rhodes-owned British South Africa Company that invaded Zimbabwe in 1890 and led to the colonisation and subjugation of indigenous Zimbabweans for almost a century to follow. Rhodes was not content to just occupy the land, he went further and gave this newly-conquered territory his own name, and thus it became known as Rhodesia. A land that had been autonomous and self-governing since ancient times became Cecil Rhodes’s private property virtually overnight. Rhodes felt so entitled to Zimbabwe he even selected to be buried within its soil when he died. This was bad enough but what made it worse was the particular place Rhodes chose as his burial ground – Matopo Hills, an area of great significance in indigenous Zimbabwean culture.
Matopo Hills is the most sacred and important site in Zimbabwean spirituality. The local name for Matopo Hills is Njelele, also known as Matonjeni or Mabweadziva. Njelele is a holy shrine that is respected and honoured by most ethnic groups in the country as a place of immense spiritual and ancestral power. It plays many roles and functions – as the leading rainmaking shrine, as a centre of the Mwari (God) religion, as the home of Murenga who is the High Spirit and founding ancestor of most Zimbabweans, and as a place to receive guidance and instruction on matters of national importance. The voice of Mwari is said to echo from its mysterious caves when consulted, although it has gone silent in recent years. Important pre-colonial kings and spirit mediums are also buried there. Matopo Hills is our spiritual headquarters and centre of belief as a land. To have the grave of Rhodes and the graves of his fellow settlers in the midst of our holiest sanctuary is cultural blasphemy of the highest order.
Cecil Rhodes’s presence in our divine shrine is an insult to our ancestors and our spiritual heritage. How can our coloniser be allowed to rest unchallenged in our most sacred space? How can his spirit co-exist alongside our Supreme Being? There can be no greater curse on the land than this heresy. It’s no surprise that chaos and turmoil are now the norm in our nation. The location of Rhodes’s grave has disturbed the equilibrium of our land and upset the ancestral spirits. His grave is a shrine for white supremacists and nostalgic Rhodesians, a site of pilgrimage for racists longing for a return to imperialism. To allow these people repeated access to our ancient shrine because of Rhodes’s grave is an offence that cannot be easily appeased or forgiven. The continued presence of Cecil Rhodes in Matopo Hills is an attack on our cultural identity and a shameful stain on our national conscience that can only be made right with his removal. His remains should not be allowed to continue defiling our holy place any longer.
To really grasp the extent of the desecration of Matopo Hills we must truly understand what Cecil Rhodes represents to us Zimbabweans. Rhodes represents dispossession – the loss of our self-determination, our territorial autonomy and our independence as a people. The arrival of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company into our land was utterly devastating for our existence. We lost our most precious resource – our land, and all the wealth contained within it. Our minerals and raw materials were plundered and looted to enrich a foreign land lacking even a tenth of what we possessed. This same land the settlers took from us was our source of subsistence and nourishment, where we grew the crops that fed us and kept us alive. Our forefathers were forcefully confined to over-crowded reserves with poor soils and harsh climate conditions, while the white minority converted our ancestral lands into capitalist farms for profit.
Even now, 38 years after independence, the issue of land has still not been adequately addressed. There is still lingering inequality and frustration linked to the question of land in Zimbabwe, and the land reform process has been troubled since its inception. There is sad irony in the way we are struggling to redistribute what historically belongs to us. We have also failed to properly manage and channel our abundant natural resources since independence. Zimbabwe has failed to regain its trading and economic glory of pre-colonial times. Our once majestic land now looks East and West for foreign help to survive. The roots of all this can be traced back to 1890, when Rhodes and his settlers seized what was rightfully ours and dispossessed an entire nation.
Dispossession is not all Cecil Rhodes represents, he is also symbolic of oppression. The years of Rhodesian white minority rule were a time of great brutality and cruelty for black Zimbabweans. Blacks were dehumanised, stripped of their rights and dignity, unfairly taxed and forced to provide labour for white Rhodesians in conditions no different to slavery. They were routinely harassed, imprisoned and treated with extreme violence. Many black Zimbabweans were killed in the First Chimurenga uprising against settler rule of 1896, including spiritual leaders like Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi. Our forefathers faced discrimination and exclusion on a devastating scale. They became inferior citizens in their own land because of the intersection of racism and fascism represented by Cecil Rhodes and his comrades.
Ironically when black majority rule was finally achieved in 1980, this same oppression was inherited by the new black leaders of the nation. The repression, brutality and silencing of the majority was so entrenched in Zimbabwean institutions and political culture that the leaders of independent Zimbabwe simply continued what the Rhodesians had started. Rhodes left us a legacy of oppressive rule and injustice that is yet to be uprooted from our governance system, a legacy that continues to disempower the majority while the elite few benefit from their position and privilege.
But it does not end there – Rhodes further symbolises cultural alienation. The coming of colonisation led to the crippling loss of our indigenous ways and the destruction of our rich and complex identity as Zimbabweans. Our communal values such as hunhu/ubuntu were erased and replaced by Western values of greed, materialism, narcissism and ruthless ambition. Our indigenous knowledge was deemed inferior and replaced with European philosophies that clashed with our worldview and did not fit our environment. Our traditions and customs were labelled savage and primitive compared to European norms.
The coloniser made us believe that anything originating from us was wrong, evil and negative. Even our physical features were labelled ugly and animalistic – our skin was not pale enough, our hair was too coarse, our noses too broad and our women’s figures too voluptuous to be beautiful. We were told our language was backward and unsophisticated compared to the white man’s language. Our spirituality was labelled demonic and wicked. Our spiritual beliefs were reduced to mere superstition at best, and devilish witchcraft at worst.
This colonial alienation disconnected us from our truth and our source. We learned to hate the reflection of ourselves we saw mirrored in each other’s traumatised faces and eyes. We learned to despise anything born from us, or belonging to us. We disowned our mother tongue for an illegitimate language that orphaned us each time we spoke it. We turned our self-hatred on our skin, burning it away with corrosive chemicals to expose the raw flesh underneath, so we could resemble the coloniser we had grown to idolise so completely. And, worst of all, we abandoned our Creator and our ancestors for the blonde, blue-eyed God that missionaries once forced us to accept. And here we are today – a nation of happy hostages stubbornly refusing any cure for our Stockholm Syndrome.
Truthfully we have no right to call ourselves a post-colonial nation as long as the bones of Cecil Rhodes continue to lie in our sacred place. For as long as Rhodes remains entombed in our holy hills we remain colonised spiritually and culturally. No amount of revenue gained or tourist numbers are worth the soul and dignity of our land. The time has come to do away with excuses and justifications and face the radical truth. The ghost of Rhodes has no place in an independent Zimbabwe. He must be exorcised and expelled from our land with immediate effect. We must follow the South African example and make him leave. Now.