In 2015 Oxford student Ntokozo Qwabe expressed the view that the statue of the patron of his Oxford scholarship should be removed as Cecil Rhodes was an imperialist and “looted Africa”. Ntokozo Qwabe’s view exemplifies the well-intentioned conflation of political correctness, moral relativism and anti-imperialism which has dominated the debate about Empire for a long time.
Of course, Empire was and still is “problematic” but not always in the way imagined.
When the likes of Rhodes and others took charge of parts of Africa they saw the potential to spread Christianity economic “freedom” and make money. Without being aware of it they proletarianised those who could be taken out of the tribe and placed in waged employment. Proletarianisation is the precursor of socialism.
With slavery diminished and urban tribalism in decline, these proletarianised workers were contracted or “freed” labour. They had, in theory, a choice for whom they worked. People will say that this was exploitation on a grand scale. We agree it is exploitation in a Marxian sense but disagree it was worse than tribalism if the end result became freedom from tribal oppression, particularly for women.
What Rhodes and others did was replace the poverty brutality and sexual discrimination of tribal life, it’s uncertainty and ritualistic practices and allowed more modern values and agricultural techniques to generate greater economic value in Africa. Greater value than the indigenous population could hope to have created by repeating ancient rituals and superstitions.
Now Ntokozo Qwabe makes a couple of points which whilst perhaps true, typify the limited and constrained nature of the debate. Firstly the value taken, what he describes as the “resources and labour of my people” were acquired by the Empire builders but they, in exchange, liberated people from what by modern standards would be seen as the horror of tribalism. Where this happened it spared some women the savagery of FGM and assisted people, in general, to create better lives for themselves. Well-intentioned westerners should reflect on tribal ritualism, gender-based and backed up by superstition before monstering Rhodes and his ilk.
In Africa and the Middle East today we have the collapse of feudal societies and their slide into tribalism. In Syria feudalism is sliding into tribalism and in Western inner cities, crime empires have for decades mirrored feudalism, now they resemble tribes. Capitalism has failed its global mission to proletarianised us all so the world can progress to socialism and beyond. Where this process has happened many more people benefit including Ntokozo Qwabe. Whilst not necessarily celebrating Rhodes we should at least have a balanced view of his and other Victorian’s long-term legacy.
Ntokozo Qwabe is benefitting from a western economic system that has liberated him and could go further and liberate his continent from religious separatism, tribalism fear and war if only he and others would stop bashing people like Rhodes.