The poverty of the neo-colonial imagination – Columbus and Rhodes

During the week of 13 July 2015, I was in Buenos Aires for a workshop led by Fernando Calderón, the former head of the UN Human Development Reports in Latin America. The meeting was part of a Latin American-African project on rethinking development, linked to the recently published book by Manuel Castells, Reconceptualizing Development in the Global Information Age [1], in which South Africa was one of five case studies.

On the morning of Tuesday 14 July, Fernando said to me: “Come with me this evening, my friend Evo Morales [president of Bolivia] is here for the historical unveiling of the monument of Juana Azurduy.”

When I asked who she was, he replied: “She is the Argentine-Indian freedom fighter who liberated Bolivia, Chile and Argentina from the Spanish, and lost her husband and four sons in the process and tonight Morales and Cristina Kirchner [president of Argentina] will unveil the new monument.”

‘A tale of two statues’

Coming from Cape Town, the birthplace of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, I thought this sounded familiar.

For a succinct overview of the debate, I selected an excerpt from an article by Orlando Jenkinson called “A Tale of Two Statues”. Jenkinson writes:

“Nobody could deny that Columbus is a monumental figure in world history. His cruelty doesn’t change that, neither does the fact that the Vikings settled across the Atlantic centuries before he got there, or that his attributed ‘discovery’ was a great trick of 15th century newspeak, since the Americas were home to millions of people that had lived there for generations prior to the renaissance arrival of Europeans.

“First, the European was removed from his plinth at the foot of the Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace) rear wall. Now, the Latin American is coming to replace him.

“A gift from Bolivia’s three-time president and indigenous rights champion Evo Morales, the giant bronze statue of Juana Azurduy has been completed in recent days by maestro Andrés Zerneri and will soon assume the plinth where Columbus stood for so many years.

“He was ousted following a bitter and widely publicised struggle that began in 2011. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner led the charge, citing the now widely accepted revisionist view of Columbus that leans more towards the egotistical slaver and less towards the heroic explorer who ‘discovered’ a ‘new world’.

“The weight of revisionist historians everywhere and swinging national and international consciousness, less and less satisfied with the dusty Eurocentric version of world history (‘Western Civilisation’) taught for decades if not centuries in the classroom, was behind the president. But it was a bitterly contested fight.”

‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign

One of the much publicised demands from the Rhodes Must Fall ‘uprising’ at the University of Cape Town in South Africa was a demand for more black professors, based on an assumption that the racial prejudice and racial policies of Cecil John Rhodes were at the heart of his legacy.

But a more endemic legacy of Rhodes, namely monopoly capitalism, has not been debated by the academics, or the aspirant academics.

Monopoly capitalism, particularly when based on an extractive (mining) economy model, is usually associated with an elite higher education model in which a small elite are educated to manage business and politics, and a large pool of low-skilled cheap labour.

This was exactly Rhodes’ model for the University of Cape Town – Oxford in the colony to manage cheap labour and civilise the Cape. So the problem is not only more black professors, but an economic model that does not require many professors, black or white.

From the early 1990s, and informed by a much-quoted 1994 paper by Badat, Barends and Wolpe [2], transformation has been about equity AND development and the tension between these two policy directions.

So in addition to the race of the professors, what would be informative to discuss at the place where Rhodes used to sit, is that the business model of Apple – the beloved company of so many academics and aspirants – shares certain key features with Rhodes’ model.

Apple and Rhodes

The first is the monopoly of the product – Steve Jobs was fighting endless intellectual property rights battles while also battling cancer. The Rhodes (subsequently De Beers) monopoly over the diamond trade is unsurpassed in the history of capitalism.

The second is marketing. Few products have ever been better marketed than diamonds and the Apple Mac (not to forget iPad and iPhone). Third is cheap labour. The ‘genius’ of Steve Jobs was that he outsourced the exploitation of workers to China.

According to Business Insider, Apple workers' schedules are set at six days a week, with 11-hour shifts, 20 minutes of which is unpaid. The remainder of the shift is paid at a rate of US$1.50 an hour which equals US$268 per month. This monthly pay is drastically below the basic living wage necessary to live in Shanghai.

In contrast, Apple announced, after shareholder pressure, that it will return US$200 billion to capital shareholders and investors over the next two years.

It is estimated that Apple has about 30,000 shareholders /investors, which means each one will get a minimum of US$6 million. But 10 shareholders own 25% of Apple stock, which means they will get at least US$50 million each.

Rhodes at least gave some of his money to start Rhodes University, gave land to the University of Cape Town and Kirstenbosch, and the international Rhodes Scholarship scheme.

As for Steve Jobs, according to Dealbook, despite accumulating an estimated US$8.3 billion fortune by 2011 already, through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4% stake in Disney (through the sale of Pixar), there is no public record of Jobs giving any money to charity.

In South Africa, more than a century after Rhodes, his economic model is much more entrenched than his racial attitudes.

While the National Development Plan 2030 and the Department of Science and Technology are promoting a knowledge economy, which assumes a massified but differentiated higher education system, the country is in fact practising a more industrial age extractive economy with a very thin layer of research and development with large numbers of low-skilled (and low-paid) workers, and social grants to try and compensate for unemployment.

More complex thinking needed

What also needs more discussion is that history is dialectical.

The exploitation of Columbus and Rhodes ultimately led to opposition and resistance. If Nelson Mandela had not been forced off the land, he and his cousin Kaiser Matanzima may have been famous only for their contestations about chieftainship. But Mandela went to the mines, and the rest is history. Similarly, outsourcing hi-tech manufacturing was crucial to the rise of China.

As for Columbus, Morales and Kirchner at least agreed on, and produced, an alternative (if equally ugly and unimaginative) monument before they moved Columbus.

But replacing the one with the other is still informed by a simplistic notion of good or bad – although Juana Azurduy at least represents a number of Latin American countries; she is not just another nationalist heroine.

For Rhodes, it is very disappointing that Africa’s highest ranked university could not put forward a more complex notion of history than populist rhetoric and poo, passive resistance and then a crane.

For inspiration they needed to go no further than William Kentridge’s proposed 550 metre-long frieze for the Tiber embankment in Rome, which has the art world abuzz from New York to Venice to Shanghai. The theme is “Triumphs and Laments”.

According to Kentridge, every triumph is somebody else’s lament, from war to soccer. And one could add, every oppression has its resistance. But Rhodes’ economic model seems particularly resolute – perhaps because it resonates with greedy elites, white or black, Steve Jobs or Cecil Rhodes.

Perhaps putting a monument of Mandela next to Rhodes, or Columbus next to Azurduy, would force everybody to think beyond victory or defeat, black or white, colonial or neo-colonial, nationalisation or monopoly capitalism.

* Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


1- Castells M and Himanen P (eds) (2014) Reconceptualizing Development in the Global Information Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2- Badat S, Barends Z and Wolpe H (1994) “The Post-Secondary Education System: Towards policy formulation for equality and development”. In: B Kaplan (ed), Changing by Degrees? Equity Issues in South African Tertiary Education. Cape Town: UCT Press.