The stink is not about just one statue, it is about tolerance – Business Day, 23 March 2015

Until a "throw poo at your peril" invention comes along, the Rhodes statue will remain vulnerable to attack. Even so, it should remain where it is for the simple reason that moving it would be to capitulate to vandalism and intolerance. No university, least of all one espousing the ideals of academic freedom, can afford to give in to such forces without compromising its very ethos.

By John Kane-Berman 

I HAVE always wondered why no one has yet invented some sort of material to apply to walls on which vandals scrawl graffiti. Lo and behold, The Star newspaper last week carried a delightful article plus photograph under the headline: Pee at your peril. It reported how urine-repelling paint is being applied to walls in Hamburg in Germany to deter men who use them as public lavatories.

An upgraded invention applying the same boomerang principle would obviously be the solution to protect the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) from Taliban-like students who throw excrement at it.

They presumably do so on the assumption that black workers, rather than the students themselves, will then have to clean it up.

Until a "throw poo at your peril" invention comes along, the Rhodes statue will remain vulnerable to attack. Even so, it should remain where it is for the simple reason that moving it would be to capitulate to vandalism and intolerance.

No university, least of all one espousing the ideals of academic freedom, can afford to give in to such forces without compromising its very ethos.

UCT has capitulated to this kind of threat before.

In the mid-1980s, several hundred students violently disrupted meetings addressed by Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish politician, diplomat, writer and academic.

He had once described the academic boycott of SA as a "Mickey Mouse affair", a sentiment that was too outrageous for some of the students to accept. To avert further violence, O’Brien bowed to a request by the university that he cancel the remainder of his lectures.

Threats that he would not be allowed to talk at the University of the Witwatersrand led to the cancellation of his lectures there. Even Helen Suzman was once denied a platform at her alma mater.

These were not the most glorious moments in the history of either university, least of all in the light of their own earlier, and deservedly celebrated, stance against some of the National Party government’s intrusions upon their autonomy, and in particular its imposition of apartheid upon them via the Extension of University Education Act of 1959.

The issue around the Rhodes statue goes beyond UCT.

It also goes beyond Cecil Rhodes. There are few places in SA where names of local authorities, or of public buildings, or of streets, do not offend some or other section of the population because they commemorate racists, nationalists of one or another colour, imperialists, communists, or people that some regard as terrorists but others as freedom fighters.

Some people might argue that all of this must be embraced in the name of "nation-building" or "social cohesion".

For many people, that may be a demand too far.

But tolerance is not. It is imperative. In the name of tolerance, we are all required not only to hear opinions we dislike, but also to live with symbols we may dislike, ranging from statues to names on streets or buildings.

Tolerance, however, has its limits. It cannot condone vandalism or malicious damage to property, least of all from university students, who are the most privileged young people in the country.

The proper response to student vandalism is not the appeasement some people are already planning or urging over the Rhodes statue, but disciplinary proceedings.

Too often these days, too many students on too many different campuses resort to acts of vandalism or, even worse, violence to back or dramatise some or other demand.

This should have been stopped long ago.

UCT would do the country a service if it made use of this high-profile saga to draw a line in the sand.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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