Last week the bust of Cecil John Rhodes at Rhodes Memorial was decapitated. South African National Parks (SANParks) has opened a case of vandalism.
This is not the first time that monuments honouring the colonialist has been vandalised. In 2015 there was the big #Rhodesmustfall campaign in which the statue of Cecil John Roads at UCT was also vandalised. The Tatler posed questions to Professor Shadreck Chirikure, Head of the Department of Archaeology at UCT, about movement and what still needs to done to address inequality:
What is the university’s view on colonialism? In 2015 there was the big #Rhodesmustfall campaign at the university and this led to increased talks and discussions about colonialism?
Colonialism established an oppressive system characterised by oppression, human rights violations, and much worse. The decapitation of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue is part of that continuing conversation. Heritage is made and remade; it is negotiated and contested. What kind of society have we become, that we value the statue of oppressors more than their victims. Like history heritage is written by the victors. The decapitation of Cecil Rhodes’ statue must be seen within that context. It is a cry for help from the long suffering, the marginalised – the message is; ‘for how long will we suffer’?
This shows that discussions about colonialism, its impact and compensation as well as reparations must be discussed. History is in the past, but it affects the present, and future. Which part do we want to hang on? A violent, oppressive one, that denied the majority a history or there is remorse on the part of others to say there are people in the world that suffered because of uncontrolled greed, uncontrolled violence so there is need for society to better this. This is the continuing conversations that started with Rhodes Must Fall and which are continuing in Cape Town and elsewhere in the world. The more that happens, the more continue to learn and engage with uncomfortable elements of our past.
In modern South Africa and in the time of the global movement of #Blacklives Matter we see that statues and symbols which had an negative impact on the black community in USA and the UK, were either removed or were vandalised by protestors, so what are your views about South Africa that should maybe consider removing statues that is connected to the pain cause by colonialism?
Removing the statues in SA is not the answer. The answer lies in addressing the inequalities created by colonialism, by Apartheid. Statues are symbols, they were meant to celebrate the achievements of different persons. Those persons happen to have oppressed, murdered, raped others. Which history are they representing? Are we saying there is a statue of a man that killed thousands, that exploited thousands, so in having them are we saying this is some sort of aspiration or what? Where are the women of those generations – both black and white? In any case, the unfortunate situation in South Africa is that there far too many war colonial monuments when compared to post-colonial monuments. This raises questions whether the country has moved on or not. Inequality is still there, people still have no water, no electricity, no jobs and so on. In pursuit of social justice, removing statues is not essential. What is essential is the need to correct the problems caused by a system which the men cast in bronze created. However, if it makes the oppressed feel better, why not take them down. It is the responsibility of each generation to define what it calls heritage. Removing Cecil John Rhodes statue from UCT did not erase the man from history. It simply made UCT a better place for those generations that suffered and continue to suffer from the legacies of oppression.
Do you think that there should still be a place in our South African history that acknowledges that past and still keep statues that are connected to the country of the past?
That would be the ideal. Just to add that our society must also build monuments to honour those who were oppressed, those that were killed by the ones statues are meant to commemorate. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a massive memorial side by side with ~Cecil John Rhodes so that people can know that amidst all the wealth he built there was untold suffering, unethical conduct and the like. So pairing these statues might be the best way to present balanced pasts and to acknowledged the down trodden. But then, do we have resources to invest in statues when there are other pressing needs? The other option might be install interpretive panels that present many sides to the story. Uncontextualized, statues celebrate one sided history, if society thinks the statues are history, then that history is edited, it must be made more comprehensive. One sided histories that celebrate an oppressive minority neither necessary nor desirable. We need all histories. Finally, which histories are told by statues? Cecil John Rhodes never saw the memorial it was made by his friends. The deeds that Rhodes performed won’t change because there is no memorial. This however is a discussion which the nation must have as it navigates effort to achieve a better future for all.