A few years ago whilst on a trip to Okinawa, I visited the island’s World War Two memorial, where the graves of the fallen overlook the tranquil clear blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Though mainland Japan was subject to heavy Allied aerial bombing campaigns during the war, Okinawa was the only geographic location in Japan, which saw ground warfare.
The Battle of Okinawa was a viciously fought conflict in which over 200 000 people were killed. 62% of these were civilian casualties.
The memorial is also home to haunting art and video installations, which unreservedly tell the bloody tale of that battle and its high human cost.
There was none of the triumphalism that one encounters in British and American accounts of WW2. I saw that war, truly, for the first time, from the perspective of the defeated. And all the sadness and shame that accompanied it.
But there was poignancy and dignity too.
That day in Okinawa taught me a great deal about the subjectivity of History and how there is no one neat narrative about the past. History comprises competing stories and recollections from multiple perspectives. My experience at the Okinawa war memorial was also a very valuable lesson in how to confront the violence and injustices of the past in an honest, dignified and thoughtful manner
I think we should keep such in mind when considering the demands of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign – but not capitulating to them. That would be a grave error.
We should not hide from the horrors of history or try and physically erase them.
They should be out in the open for everyone to observe and discuss, and, hopefully never repeat.
By removing the statue, Rhodes Must Fall is proposing an abrupt end to that conversation. They are insisting that Rhodes=Bad and therefore he must go. End of discussion.
But that is, of course, a gross oversimplification. The truth is more complex.
Rhodes was both benefactor and brute, a man who destroyed as much as he created.
He built a magnificent legacy in the form of The Rhodes Trust. He also brought a lot of misery to the people of South Africa. We should be intellectually robust enough to acknowledge both these facts, however discomfiting.
and one bird wheeling lonely, high –
An exile come back
from over the sea;
a grave in the grass,
a tear breaking free;
(translated by Guy Butler)
“An F.E. Cilliers’ poem about the loneliness and devastation faced by thousands of Boers returning from exile, after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), to burned farms, empty lives and missing family.” Source
I also think that those of us alive today should be humble about our place in history. Current political orthodoxies should not determine which statues are acceptable for posterity and which are not.
An excellent point was made in this televised debate in Johannesburg about Rhodes Must Fall that if the EFF, a radical opposition party in South Africa, who are highly critical of Mandela’s legacy, should ever come to power, they could decide that because Mandela was “a sell out” his statues should be removed.
Pushing a singular narrative for narrow political ends is what activist movements and political parties do. Why should we be pushed into the directions they wish us to go?
The Oriel College Rhodes Statue shouldn’t be in a museum where it would lose all its meaning and context. It is, for better or worse, a part of Oxford university and its history. Why run from that? Acknowledge it. Interrogate it. Learn from it.
Or just quietly contemplate it. Like the wise little war memorial in Okinawa does.