Last week, protesters at the University of Cape Town, one of Africa's most prestigious universities, dropped a bucket of human excrement on a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the swaggering 19th-century British business magnate and imperialist who helped blaze a colonial trail across the continent. The protesters were angered by the continued presence of the bronze statue, which depicts a seated Rhodes in a thoughtful posture. Rhodes had donated the land upon which the university was built.

University officials described the act as "reprehensible and regrettable." They have discussed moving the statue to a less prominent location, but the student activists who planned the stunt want the statue gone, saying it's symbolic of a history of oppression and subjugation.

"We, as black students, as African students, need to be able to identify with the institution," student leader Ramabina Mahapa said at a university meeting following the incident, according to the Associated Press. "Whose heritage are we preserving?" A new march is planned for Friday.

The conversation has spread far beyond this picturesque city near the coast. On social media, the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #RhodesSoWhite proliferated; the latter was triggered by students at Rhodes University, in the eastern South African city of Grahamstown, who used the moment to talk about current inequities on campus. Those grievances, of course, feed into a larger, vexing conversation about racial divisions in post-apartheid South Africa.

"University leaders make a strategic mistake to think these protests are simply about statues," wrote Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of Free State University, in a local column. "They are about a deeper transformation of universities — including the complexion of the professoriate — that remains largely unchanged."

Rhodes casts a huge shadow in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. A classic example of Victorian-era opportunism, he arrived in Africa in 1870 with family money, tried his hand at a number of schemes before building a lucrative career as a mining magnate. He went on to become a full-fledged agent of empire. He founded the territory of Rhodesia — which encompasses what's now Zambia and Zimbabwe — and dreamed of a British imperium spanning the length of the continent.

He was notable for his deeply racist beliefs, a worldview that was echoed later by South Africa's apartheid regime. "I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race," Rhodes once wrote in a letter to a friend. Not for nothing did Adolf Hitler, according to one account, hail Rhodes as one of the few Britons left who understood what it took to maintain a nation's dominance.

His hefty personal fortunes and political success are linked indelibly to his exploitation of (and contempt for) countless Africans. Rhodes engineered wars and military invasions to suit his business interests and codified policies of racial segregation whose legacy South Africa is still reckoning with.

Yet he also left behind a more generous bequest, particularly when it comes to institutions of higher education. A prestigious global scholarship at Oxford University, won by Bill Clinton, among others, still bears his name.

"These contradictions, Rhodes the pillager and Rhodes the benefactor, are a symbol of our country’s evolution towards a yet to be attained just and inclusive order," writes Trudi Makhaya, a South African columnist and Rhodes scholar.

"It’s a debate that one would have hoped would be behind us by now," she adds. "That, instead of being haunted by the past, we should have crafted a constructive narrative about it 21 years into democracy."