The anti-racism protests that are sweeping across the globe have literally toppled monuments to racists. In the United States, where the protests started, statutes that honour leaders of the Confederacy (an unrecognized republic that warred against the United States during the American Civil War) have been toppled. In the United Kingdom, a statue of a slave trader has been toppled and chucked into a nearby river.
It is yet unclear what form of agitation the Black Live Matter movement will take in Southern Africa but five years ago, students at the University of Cape Town toppled Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the university’s entrance.Unknown to most people, Gaborone is also home to a monument that honours Rhodes, a 19th century mining magnate who helped Victorian Britain colonise much of Southern Africa. In 1893 and working through an accomplice (a Gantsi Boer farmer), Rhodes attempted to trick the Batawana kgosi, Sekgoma Letsholathebe, into signing a fraudulent 999-year concession that would have expired in the year 2892.
After establishing the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the British set up their colonial headquarters in a present-day Gaborone residential district that is known as Village. Then this area was called “Government Camp” and it was here, in 1887, that Rhodes built Bechuanaland’s first hotel for British pioneers travelling from Salisbury (Harare now) to Mafikeng in South Africa. It was here, in 1899, that the Jameson Raid (which was one of the main causes of the Anglo-Boer War) was planned. Under the command of a British colonial officer called Leander Starr Jameson, white Bechuanaland and Rhodesian policemen launched an unsuccessful raid on the Transvaal Republic.“Old Gaberones Hotel” has been declared a national monument and is now the centerpiece of the National Botanical Garden in Village.
Before being elevated to this status, the building would have fallen into disuse and disrepair because, at least according to what the plaque says, it “has been restored to its former glory.”The building celebrates Rhodes’ legacy but if some people don’t want it, what are they going to do about the railway line, which was also built by Rhodes and inherited by Botswana Railways from the National Railways of Zimbabwe in 1987? It is also unlikely that “Old Gaberones Hotel” could become a hot-potato issue because the energy that Botswana’s political activism generates, if any, is so low that it can’t propel a #RhodesMustFall-type movement.Some 42 years ago, students at the one-year old University of Botswana staged street protests against the visit of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the former prime minister of the short-lived Republic of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.
Alongside white Prime Minister, Ian D. Smith, Muzorewa was part of an executive council which was ruling the country until majority rule was instituted. According to the New York Times, “Students threw eggs and other objects at policemen in the center of town a short time after Bishop Abel Muzorewa left for the airport. “You are protecting a betrayer,” the students shouted at the police. “You are supporting the racist Smith regime.”Today, if you see university students protesting on the streets, their grievances would be directly related to their allowances. Not in two decades have varsity students marched to protest issues related to regional or international politics.