WHAT do you do about our history? This somewhat plaintive, rhetorical question was asked by Oxford University chancellor Christopher Patten in an interview with the BBC recently. He was addressing the furore over the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford, which is mimicking its South African cousin, although with less success so far.
A statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes stands proudly above the entrance to Oxford’s Oriel College. For students such as South African Ntokozo Qwabe, it is a daily reminder of the painful subjugation of black people and the plunder of resources under colonialism. Qwabe told the BBC he would feel the same way if he saw "a statue of Hitler in Germany". As his reward, Qwabe has been subjected to some strong criticism and some plainly racist abuse on the internet.
Rhodes believed the English to be a master race. He was quoted as saying: "I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race." Little wonder he has posthumously become a poster boy for colonial brutality and oppression and his statue is a daily reminder of all of that.
Patten’s full quote is this: "What do you do about our history? Any views Cecil Rhodes had about empire were common to his time. What Rhodes did at the end of his life was give money to help ensure others get this opportunity." And so there’s a statue of him at Oxford and a Rhodes Scholarship.
Patten’s view is that the statue should not be removed and that those uncomfortable with it should "think about being educated elsewhere", the polite Oxford version of "if you don’t like it, lump it". It is also a not-so-subtle reminder to the likes of Qwabe that this is not your space. Which is quite a thing for a university chancellor to say.
Had Patten asked the question honestly — "What do we do about our history?" — he would then be in a position to receive a simple, but honest answer: acknowledge it — all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t try to revise it, excuse it, or downplay its effect on the challenges we face today.
Don’t try to brush Rhodes’s views off as just "common to his time". Slavery and the dehumanisation and commodification of black people was pretty common at some point in time too, but no less abhorrent.
What struck me about Lord Patten’s response was that it is all so familiar.
In SA it is, in some quarters, almost impolite to bring up apartheid. People will side-eye you, roll their eyes or suddenly remember an urgent appointment elsewhere. It’s like fight club, the first rule being: "We don’t talk about apartheid, doll."
Now I’m not saying we need to delve deep every day of our lives, but when our daily lives are affected by our histories, it’s useful to be clear-eyed about it and admit its impact. The response to Rhodes Must Fall in the UK has mimicked that in SA: it is quite polarising.
Patten’s response plays true to the kind of whitewashed history of the empire that appears to be popular in some quarters here and at home.
Take for example the recent kerfuffle over the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was worn by Britain’s Queen Mother at the coronation of her husband and later her daughter, and is among the Crown Jewels.
A group of Indian businessman and Bollywood stars have united to instruct lawyers to begin proceedings to demand the return of the jewel to India. The 100-carat stone was handed to Queen Victoria in 1851, under allegedly dubious circumstances. The British government has rejected several requests for the return of the Koh-i-Noor, much as they’ve rejected requests for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
But I bring it up to allow you to consume this gem of a quote from historian Andrew Roberts to The Mail on Sunday: "Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the subcontinent."
So, what do you do about our history? Denying it will only keep you trapped in the past, unable to build the future. And toppling a statue means nothing without a meaningful discourse about our past and our present.
• Meintjies is Times Media’s foreign correspondent and bureau chief in London