Blog post by Heritage Consortium PhD student Sam North, and his lead supervisor, Dr Nicholas Evans, Department of History and Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE), University of Hull. Photographs by Dr Nicholas Evans.
South Africa remains a divided nation 21 years after its first democratic elections were held. Despite official and private attempts to provide more inclusive representations of heritage, the country has greater priorities, including escalating deaths from AIDS, the highest rate of rape crime in the world, and a society in which privilege remains heavily linked to race. Significant funding is not available in the arts and culture sector to fully remedy decades of imbalanced representation of non-hegemonic cultures. Whilst new ‘flagship’ museums commemorating the experiences of marginalised people under apartheid have opened and others have seen redevelopment, many remain, at best, a perplexing fusion of old and new. People are increasingly voicing frustrations at what they perceive as a lack of progress in many areas of the public sphere, including the heritage sector.
In 2015 this resentment manifested in the #RhodesMustFall campaign by students at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Whilst the University was one of South Africa’s more liberal campuses during apartheid and currently has Nelson Mandela’s widow as its Chancellor, virtually every named building is dedicated to a white male. Alongside those which remember scholars are some of the most infamous men in the nation’s modern past – Cecil Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, and the ‘architect’ of apartheid D.F. Malan. All post sent from what is commonly considered Africa’s leading university continues to bear the stamp “Rhodes Gift” to remind staff, students, and visitors alike that they are on a site donated to the nation by the mineral magnate and arch-imperialist Rhodes.
As we set off on a field trip to the Western Cape in April it quickly became apparent that everyone in South Africa and further afield was watching as the student campaign narrowed on its focal point, the bronze Rhodes statue which pensively gazed across Cape Town from Upper Campus. As we landed at Cape Town airport the immigration clerk informed us that during our twelve hour flight the University Council had agreed Rhodes’ statue would be removed within hours. Settling into our campus accommodation, we could hear the recalcitrant noise generated by campaigners who had occupied the University’s main administration building nearby.
Removal of the statue was one of several demands made by #RhodesMustFall as part of a wider campaign aiming to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum at UCT. These aims included replacing elements of what activists perceived as a Eurocentric curriculum with key texts from African authors, and demanding that the university take steps to remedy racial imbalances in its staff and student ratios. That the statue served as an early focal point for the movement offered a reminder of the scale with which white men continue to dominate Cape Town’s memorial landscape. The Company’s Gardens, for example, include figures of Rhodes, Jan Smuts, Henry Timson Lukin, and George Gray. For campaigners, the Rhodes statue at UCT was symbolic of what they saw as the continued white-domination of education and wider society. By the time we arrived it had been desecrated with paint, posters, and human excrement.
These statues themselves have become sites of contestation. Other statues, such as that dedicated to Louis Botha outside parliament, were defaced at the same time. Representing a counter-argument, an Afrikaner pro-Boer wreath was hung on the statue, challenging the red paint which obscured Botha’s name. Afrikaner groups such as AfriForum have entered the debate re-opened by #RhodesMustFall, arguing that their own white heritage should not be forgotten.
At 5pm on our second day in Cape Town we gathered with several hundred onlookers and the world’s press as the Rhodes statue was removed ‘to safe storage’. As the lifting equipment was lowered into place, many of the crowd were unable to contain their jubilation at witnessing this historic moment and clambered onto the back and shoulders of Rhodes. One person was even armed with a hammer. The truck then pulled away complete with as many activists as could possibly have hung on waving and cheering. Rhodes had fallen, though his legacies live on.