The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town and other institutions has sparked great debate. It is a campaign centred on the fall of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, yet it speaks to much larger concerns with representation, institutional racism and transformation. These issues aptly converged in the first year Fine Art Foundation lecture theme of ‘Memorialisation’, both public and private.
On the 25th of March, each First year tutorial group was tasked with proposing a solution to resolve the issue of the statue’s possible removal, as well as what should consequently happen to the statue and the space in which it stood. The first group to present agreed with the removal, proposing the replacement of the statue with a rolling bi-annual installation of new work which would allow for greater social discussion on a wide spectrum of issues. With logistical concerns in mind, the students also suggested for the area to alternatively become a meeting place for discussion and congregation. This was then supported and built upon by other tutorial groups.
The following group agreed with the removal of the statue, yet argued that the damaged surface caused by the removal should be left exposed as a symbol of the need for transformation. The group also felt that no one individual, or even set of ideologies, should be memorialized. A plaque would be installed, to account for the events of the debate and to acknowledge what previously existed in the space. The removal of the statue was insisted upon not as an act of erasing or forgetting the history of South Africa and Cecil John Rhodes impact on Africa, but rather as an action to change the university’s representation. It was then suggested that the sculpture should be placed in a museum, as a symbol revisited; a point agreed on by the majority of the students which presented.
Another perspective was in objection to the removal of the statue due to the alleged non-existence of the post colonial legacy and disadvantages. It was also stated that allowing students the power to institute change would jeopardise the reputation of the university. However, this singular and polarised perspective was highly contested by the audience.
The final group’s proposal was to replace the statue with a new installation that represented the ideals of the UCT students and unity, as a collective body. Designs would have to be produced and agreed upon, allowing creative involvement from the students in moulding their university. The consensus throughout each presentation, or perhaps the main recurring point, was that discussion regarding the statue, and the aspects that it is seen to represent, is imperative, and could serve as a catalyst for reform within the university.
In line with this thought, after all of the presentations concluded, discussion and commentary was opened to the staff and students of Michaelis who had all been invited to attend the lecture. Students engaged with eachother, attempting to explain and gain understanding of the campaign. The topic shifted towards debating the social uncertainty and unease that this campaign was causing within the UCT student body. The room became charged as students aired their grievances and discontent with the lack of African content, exclusivity of the African studies collection, individual experiences with racism and further discussion on the effectiveness of the possible removal of the Rhodes statue. Focusing on the removal of the statue served as a means to confront the lack of transformation in the university’s curricula, staff composite and student body.
The lecture closed with final thoughts and considerations presented by Professor Pippa Skotnes. In closing, Professor Skotnes stressed the need to consider how we translate our opinions, to listen and to further encourage the dialogue about the Rhodes statue, its consequent future and what it has come to symbolise.