Originally directed against a statue that commemorates the colonial icon Cecil John Rhodes, the campaign marked the beginning of the largest wave of student protests in democratic South Africa. Across the country, students called for the “decolonisation” of universities and free higher education, among other things.
The removal of the statue on 9 April 2015 led to a heated public debate in a society that is still at odds with its divided past and present existence. Some believe that colonialism and apartheid are part of the history of South Africa and that these memorial representations are appropriate. Many others argue that, given the impact of colonialism and apartheid on people’s material lives and psyches until today, public memorials only serve to glorify these systems.
Zethu Matebeni, at the time a senior researcher at UCT’s HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa and a member of the #RhodesMustFall movement, took some time out to reflect on the events.
Perspectives: What did the Rhodes statue symbolise to you?
Matebeni: Locating the statue at the centre of the most prestigious university in Africa had significance. In many ways, it attested to the ideas that Rhodes himself promoted: the elitism of the white race, his own colonial conquests from Cape to Cairo, and how the land in the Cape should be distributed, to whom and by whom. These ideas are still evident at the University of Cape Town, where Rhodes’ statue tow-ered prominently over the campus and the city of Cape Town at large. It was almost as if Rhodes was gazing on his conquest, wondering how far and for how long into time his colonising powers could reach in taking over the land.
The tragic irony of its positioning, backed by the hall named after colonial politician Leander Starr Jameson, where prestigious events and graduations are conferred, symbolically attests to the relationship that these two iconic figures had to the land they occupied. It also demonstrates how knowledge production is undoubtedly deeply political. While many argue that Rhodes’ investment in education – through the Rhodes and Mandela-Rhodes scholarships and land bequeathed to university campuses – has made significant contributions to higher education, it is also true that it is in universities such as Oxford and Cape Town that black students were dehumanised and felt alienated from the academic project.
For black students and staff arriving at the university, the statue was a constant reminder of how and for whom the university was designed.
This extends beyond the colonial architecture and the spatial planning of the institution to the medium of instruction, the privilege afforded to whiteness, and the value given to middle-class positionality. It is really about the everyday psychic manipulation that enforces one’s complicity in glorifying and celebrating statues of colonial conquerors and perpetrators as heroes. Many black students and staff expressed disgust at the assumption and expectation to assimilate to white standards and white values of excellence. This perpetuated how black students were made not to belong at the university. Rhodes’ colonial architectural ideals are deeply embedded in the education system. Eventually, these conditions fuelled the students’ demands for decolonised curricula and a transformed institutional culture.
Why have the protests to take the Rhodes statue down started only two years ago, two decades into democracy?
This was not the first time, nor the last, that the symbolic power of this colonial icon was put into question. However, the #RhodesMustFall movement galvanised an electric energy around the world that could no longer be ignored.
Statues and monuments give those with the power and resources to erect them a history. Simultaneously, h(er)istories of those powerless are wiped out because, in essence, colonial and apartheid histories were already about obliteration. Black people mostly appeared as exploitable labour, dispossessed of their lands, bodies and minds. It is thus no surprise that, with the beginning of the democratic era, colonial-infused apartheid monuments, symbols and statues had to be reconsidered.
Already back in 1994, the statue of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was removed from parliament in Cape Town. Seventeen years later, in a somewhat theatrical event in Midvaal, south of Johannesburg, another bust of Verwoerd was taken down. At the time, people were already attuned to the arrogance of preserving certain histories over others. While, for many Afrikaners, Verwoerd was perhaps a genius of segregation policies, preserving his statue also gave them a sense of history, belonging, and a past from where to gaze into the future. Similar sentiments were expressed about the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT, in a city where at least two other statues of him exist.
Almost a quarter of a century into democracy, South Africa may have reached an important milestone. Yet the realities of many South Africans are not on a par with such an achievement.
At a time when many South Africans are struggling economically, when the promise of an education system that will liberate the nation fails us, when the brutal deaths of miners shot in Marikana remind us of apartheid-era massacres such as Sharpeville, when the persistence of racial segregation becomes deeply embedded in the social fabric of who we are as a nation, we can only ask: was the rainbow-nation project also a deferred dream? Has the novelty of a post-apartheid nation worn off? All these realities show the pervasiveness of the apartheid project and neo-colonialism. Rhodes is intrinsically implicated in these systems, having been a colonialist who institutionalised racial segregation and was well known for his ventures in mining capitalism.
What is going to happen with the statue? And how should the South African public deal with symbols of the colonial past?
It is not clear what will happen to this particular statue, but important conversations about statues and artworks that were destroyed or deemed offensive in post-apartheid South Africa should be considered for museums. The Rhodes statue, as a colonial artefact in the present, should form part of this archive. While it is a disturbing sight at an institution of higher learning, its legacy should never be wiped out of history. This legacy should always be represented as an ongoing conversation about the role and position of colonial and apartheid beneficiaries in democratic South Africa. In what ways could these people be held accountable for the atrocities they continue to perpetuate on everyday lives of the colonised? In what ways can their histories shape different futures? These are questions beyond the scope of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, which is responsible for monuments and statues.
People with power usually mediate meanings of and access to statues and symbols. What is important is the economic infrastructure that needs to be addressed – the symbols should be an entry point to larger questions about economic redress. In South Africa, apart from the few black capitalists, the wealth of the nation resides in the hands of white people. Thus whiteness and economic power are synonymous. As a result of access to resources, it would be easy for white people to find a new home for statues and symbols, such as the case with the Hendrik Verwoerd statues. In a democratic South Africa, access to land and infrastructure for the most marginalised and dispossessed should be prioritised first, rather than colonial artefacts.
What or who should occupy the now-empty space?
The space that Rhodes occupied is not empty. Rather, it is filled with herstories and movements. The plinth where the concrete statue was cemented is still in place. Symbolically this foundation represents the institutional establishment that is based on things that do not change. There may be aesthetic changes, but the core remains intact. The encasing of the foundation is immovable, sanitised and gives the impression that Rhodes has been unseated. Yet, more telling is the shadow of Rhodes painted on the ground. As one poster read the day the Rhodes statue was removed: “Next, the invisible statues”. These remain all over university campuses. The shadow, drawn immediately after the removal of the statue by an unknown person, insidi-ously alludes to this.
What the current protests have shown in South Africa is that iconic figures are, after all, limited. They rarely represent the collective interests of masses, struggles and movements. One or more groups will always be denied visibility and representation by a singular narrative, a sole historical male figure as an icon.
Rather than focusing on statues and the spaces they leave for new modes of occupation, what is more urgent is a social and economic reform needed to transform the lives of many black South Africans. Statues will not do this. Rather, they detract attention from the real material changes that society needs. As students at UCT asserted, “It was never just about the statue!"