In 2015, students at Cape Town university took down the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes. But what has truly changed since?
Just over five years ago, a student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Chumani Maxwele, threw a bucket of shit at the bronze face of Cecil John Rhodes. He had transported it from a nearby township, Khayelitsha, all the way to campus, a journey itself representative of spatial planning under apartheid and deep inequality in a city that is a visceral reminder of the racist legacy of the British colonialist.
One could soften this account of the birth of the #RhodesMustFall movement by referring to the shit as “excrement”, but doing so would rob the students of the profound moment in history they had marked out as their own. They were done with making polite requests for institutional reform, and were demanding decoloniality. The legacy of Rhodes is shit and shit is what they threw at him. It was a departure from engaging convivially to demanding radical change, now. Soon, and despite the gigantic historical influence of Rhodes in southern Africa since the 19th century, the statue itself would topple on 9 April 2015.
Campuses across South Africa and as far afield as Oxford University agitated for change. These ranged from the symbolic insistence that Rhodes’s statue on the High Street in Oxford should be removed by Oriel College and put in a museum, to seminars about curriculum change. There were also calls for increased representation of black and ethnic minority groups within universities both in terms of access to these institutions and in terms of who gets to hold academic jobs and executive roles.
But what is the true legacy of the fall of the statue at the University of Cape Town? And, now that Edward Colston’s statue has been toppled in Bristol – justly so as he was a slave trader who should not be celebrated in any decent society – questions have been raised about whether Oriel College’s Rhodes statue may finally be removed: should Rhodes fall again?
Statues should be toppled if they are forms of symbolic violence. One cannot be glib about how iconography impacts our relationship to public spaces. We do not routinely erect statues and monuments to shame a historical figure. We do so typically to remember them fondly, to recognise their place in history affirmatively. The idea that a statue of Cecil John Rhodes on Oxford’s High Street could be neutral is not tenable. That statue is an affirmation of his legacy rather than a critical engagement with it.
A statue in a museum, with appropriate accompaniments such as explanatory notes, couldconstitute an act of remembering. But giant statues of colonial men who plundered parts of the world such as southern Africa for racist colonial ends are representations of symbolic violence. These statues show a wilful disregard for the dignity of the victims of colonial heritage. The debate should be about what to do with the toppled statues and not whether to topple them. They belong in a museum with an accurate historical account of the sins of these men.
Nevertheless, here’s my worry about the limits of toppling statues: UCT and Oxford are not fundamentally different institutions today compared with 2015 just on account of what we in South Africa call the “Fallist” movements. This is not to minimise the political significance of activists opposing symbolic and institutional forms of violence. But what has truly changed?
Here in South Africa, for example, many of the original Fallists have, well, fallen into obscurity. Some were co-opted by major political parties and now show off new wardrobes in the National Assembly. Others simply graduated and got on with the next phase of life.
This is not a moral or political criticism. Precisely because many of the student leaders came from working-class backgrounds, they would also have been placed in the invidious position of puzzling through horrid trade-offs between sustained activism in the face of police and state brutality, entering the ranks of the working class, putting the painful years of student activism aside, and trying to construct a life beyond one’s energetic early 20s.
There is, however, an important moral here about the limits of toppling a statue: while the reduction in symbolic violence is inherently good, it cannot be the main goal of protesting. Hegemonic structures outlast transient activism. Institutions such as UCT and Oxford University need to become more than just safer spaces for everyone. They need to be more deeply committed to the larger project of decoloniality.
Once we shift the goal to this more burdensome concept, however, it means that protest success must – again – be measured in terms of changes in student and staff demography, iconography in general, curriculum changes, and dismantling the remnants of white supremacy and unearned privileges that some enjoy within these institutions. This, in turn, requires intergenerational connections to ensure that the gains of a previous cohort do not lie dormant. Deeper work is necessary to get us where we want to be. And this deeper work could expose the limits of solidarity with white allies, who may find their own interests and relationships under uncomfortable scrutiny.
The point is simple yet challenging: toppling the statues of racists is necessary but not sufficient to achieve an anti-racist society.
• Eusebius McKaiser is a broadcaster and political analyst based in Johannesburg and the author of Run Racist Run