Static History: Statues, Symbolism, and Race

This year I joined the University of Cape Town’s Black Law Student Forum (BLSF) as a member of the executive because I knew many students who felt disgruntled about their experiences within the faculty. I did not join the team with utopian dreams of solving all the issues and turning the law faculty into Gilberto Freye’s “racial democracy”. I joined because I thought it senseless that students felt the way they did yet not much was done in terms of collective action.

This is not the post on why I joined the BLSF nor why I believe it still necessary to have organizations such as the BLSF within the faculty. However, in light of recent events surrounding the Rhodes statue, and the greater conversation about race and symbolism, (if you are unaware of the situation read more here) members of the BLSF executive were asked to give our thoughts on the statue. Although the article posted by the organization does in gist represent my views, (read the statement here), I thought to share my original piece with you to better express MY opinion…

Each morning I walk from UCT’s north stop to Kramer, I tend to look up at Jameson Hall beautifully contrasted by the overpowering mountain. I occasionally see Fuller’s bust encompassed in the sandstone, and the view from where Cecil John Rhodes sits is enviable. I do not know who the Kramers, Jameson nor Fuller are, but I assume they have played an integral part in the formation and sustenance of the University of Cape Town; an institution which prides itself on its legacy and the calibre of students, researchers, and faculty it produces. However, I am very aware of Cecil John Rhodes.

From a young age, I was taught of South Africa’s history through a particular prism, and Rhodes was a prominent name in textbooks and tests. Ingrained in my memory is this mining titan who would wish to build a railroad from Cape to Cairo.  His story is not as novel as my textbooks made him seem to be. As I was taught to wonder at this man’s accomplishments, I was never told that he would not regard me, Black and female, as competent nor as worthy of achieving the dreams he was meant to inspire in me. It is this tainted reality of who Rhodes was which I believe the reason why many UCT students are calling for the removal of his statue.

The power of imagery is often understated; it is a conversation between the curator and the audience –  a story, message or feeling wished to be told. I do not wish for Rhodes’ story to be erased from the history of UCT, controversy aside, he played an important part in why the university is situated where it is among other financial assistance which he provided and continues to provide till this day.  However, it is the celebration of Rhodes through a statue that needs reconsideration. I am conflicted in the sense that I understand the outrage over the statue; however I do not know where this will stop? Is this a call to rethink all names and imagery at the University? Will I walk to a building no longer named Kramer, see a hall not named Jameson, or Fuller’s bust?

The problem is greater than the symbols at UCT. The removal of Rhodes from campus will unfortunately not erase the greater sense of silence on issues of racial representation at the university. Whereas I believe the conversation, and call to remove the statue is a starting point, there are deeper issues which need to be spoken on, not in place of, but in conjunction with symbolism at UCT. With that said, I support the student’s call to remove the Rhodes statue, and equally urge all students to engage in conversations and actions on broader transformational goals.

Relebohile Phoofolo