For 103 years the statue of Cecil John Rhodes crouches there on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, brooding out over the rugby fields all the way to the Cape Flats.
The statue celebrates his dream of a white man’s Africa — stretching British imperial power 7,235 kilometres from Cape to Cairo.
For 103 years it ignores sun, rain, war, peace, apartheid, protests, The Struggle, freedom, democracy, students, professors, rugby players and tons of pigeon shit.
But after 103 years it can’t ignore human shit.
Not when fourth-year UCT political science student, Chumani Maxwele, empties that bucket of shit over Rhodes’ head. And someone takes a picture. And the picture goes viral.
And suddenly the statue and the man it honours are famous around the globe. And South African racism flames back into the world’s headlines.
Of course, all decent people are outraged by the shit storm surrounding the Great Man’s statue.
“Damned uncivilised! Have some respect for South Africa’s past. I just don’t think anyone should throw poo at his statue.”
“After all, Rhodes gave us Groote Schuur and the Rhodes Scholarship and Kirstenbosch. The feces is a bloody disgrace!
“It wasn’t Rhodes who started apartheid, you know.”
In fact, in many ways, Cecil John Rhodes was the founding father of apartheid.
That loathsome system might never have poisoned this country if Rhodes had stayed back there in the pretty little English village of Bishop’s Stortford in England, instead of coming here.
Let me explain.
Between 1908 and 1910, my mother’s great uncle, John X. Merriman, is the last Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. One of his passionate objectives is to preserve the traditional Cape policy of one man, one vote.
(Under the Cape Franchise Act at the time, all men — regardless of colour — in the Cape Colony [later the Cape Province, now the Western Cape] have the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.)
Merriman wants to protect the franchise and extend it to the rest of what will soon become the Union of South Africa.
He deplores discrimination on the grounds of “the accident of colour.” His goal is a united South Africa “which recognises the common brotherhood of all who make South Africa their home.”
Merriman’s enemy is Cecil John Rhodes, whose lust for power and wealth recognises no common brotherhood with anyone. Certainly not with black people — the source of his wealth.
“The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism … in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.”
And: “I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”
And so it is that not much more than a hundred years ago, these two hugely different Englishmen battle for the soul of the soon-to-be-born Union of South Africa.
With Rhodes’s enthusiastic encouragement — and Merriman’s fierce opposition — the Anglo-Boer War breaks out. Before it’s over, more than 75,000 children, women and men of all races, die in the cause of British imperialism.
A few years later, when the Cape Colony is dissolved and the Union of South Africa is born, Merriman is elected to the new national government led by Louis Botha.
He tries desperately to preserve the Cape Franchise.
He opposes the Native Land Act of 1913 which virtually ends any chance that black South Africans will ever own their own land.
Thirty-five years later — with a sort of obscene inevitability — comes apartheid.
John X. Merriman would have been appalled.
Cecil John Rhodes would have been ecstatic.
Another sixty-seven years later a crane picks up that brooding bronze statue from its place of honour at UCT, swings it on a flat-bed lorry. Triumphant protesters celebrate as its driven away into history.
I know my mother’s great uncle would have cheered like crazy had he been here watching.
So John X. Merriman doesn’t win his fight against white racism in South Africa, way back in the last century.
But he surely would have celebrated the ultimate, reformed Cape Franchise we have now — one person, one vote.
And likely mourned that even a universal franchise doesn’t guarantee a just and equal society.
Tim Knight is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalism and communications coach based in Cape Town. He’s author of Storytelling And The Anima Factor, now in its second edition, and Executive Producer of the wildlife series, Inside Noah’s Ark on Amazon. He can be reached at www.TimKnight.org.