Cecil John Rhodes is both famous and infamous in South Africa. He is famous as an arch-imperialist, involved in the colonial expansion in Southern Africa in the late 19th century that generated much of the economic infrastructure that still underlies South Africa today. He is infamous also as an arch-imperialist, involved in the subjugation of native Africans to help drive economic expansion, generating much of the social division that has plagued this country.
When I arrived in South Africa two months ago, I didn't anticipate thinking much about Cecil John Rhodes, who died more than a century ago. Yet the local news was abuzz with coverage of a movement called Rhodes Must Fall.
Furious over a campus display of a symbol of a colonial and oppressive past, black students at the University of Cape Town organized to demand the removal of a Rhodes statue. After a month of protest, the statue was removed by the university. The Rhodes Must Fall movement has spread to other campuses and communities in South Africa and beyond, targeting not only Rhodes but also other figures from complicated pasts.
All of this resonated with a Memphian abroad because of our own experience with a statue of a long-deceased famous and infamous man. There was some comfort in seeing a society 8,000 miles from home grapple with the same difficult issues. Particularly in places with deep histories of division, a universal part of confronting that past is struggling with persistent symbols of it. Freed from my identity as a Memphian, I am able to follow the Rhodes story without my own local baggage and preconceptions.
One thing that is obvious is that Rhodes Must Fall was only partially about the past. The students were demonstrating not only against a symbol of an oppressive history, but also against persistent racial inequities on campus. The removal of the Rhodes statue may address the former, but does not touch the latter. If the statue's removal is to be more than a symbolic event, the university community will have to continue the difficult work of addressing today's issues.
The movement to remove the Forrest statue in Memphis is similarly about both past and present. There is symbolism of one kind in the commemoration of a Confederate general and symbolism of a very different kind in the push for its removal. But the Forrest controversy is significant because it occurs in a community with persistent racial disparities in areas from education to economics to criminal justice.
Efforts like those to remove statues are only half-measures if limited to issues of monuments and flags and park names. This is because the statue issues and the contemporary issues of race are part of the same ongoing process of building a cohesive society out of disparate parts, of building a more perfect union.
Discussions about how to recognize our past should be a jumping-off point. Unfortunately, the model for working through our conflicted past, confrontational and divisive, often sucks the air out of efforts to confront the conflicted present.
To make the process more constructive, there must be a more thorough and honest look into the past and its effects on the present.That includes acknowledging the pain caused by symbols of oppression and the disadvantages and attitudes that linger from that era. Dismissals of the relevance and legitimacy of that pain with statements like "let's move on" or "you can't change history" only make productive dialogue more difficult.
But a constructive process also involves accepting the difficulty, even pain, of having to release a social order that was so central to a way of life. Ignoring the lingering psychological impact of that loss, evident in opposition to the Forrest statue removal, and focusing only on indictment and retribution only widen the gulf in the conversation.
In South Africa, a truth and reconciliation commission was convened in the aftermath of apartheid to attempt a constructive reckoning with parts of this nation's past. If we in Memphis are ever to really begin tackling the central dividing issue of race in our community, it seems we will need a similarly deliberate effort, a truth and reconciliation project, Memphis-style. The discussions about our controversial statue could be the beginning of that process.
Without it, we are likely to spend another decade or longer stuck arguing over infamous dead men rather than working to improve the place in which we live.
Daniel Kiel is a professor at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. He is spending the semester at the University of the Free State in South Africa as a Fulbright scholar.