Echoes of #RhodesMustFall

Seeing images showing the statue to Edward Colston torn down and thrown into Bristol Harbour this afternoon prompted a strange sense of recognition. Clips of what appears to be a sort of reverse-lynching recalled images of the confederate statue torn down in Durham, North Carolina after the Charlottesville attacks in August 2017, and before that the statue to Saddam Hussein torn down by US forces in Iraq in 2003.

Bristol’s Colston toppling forms part of what Cynthia Kros has called an archive of iconoclastic images. This is by no means the first time that iconoclasm has formed part of political action in Britain. Art Under Attack, an exhibition at the Tate in 2013, explored histories of British iconoclasm, with a concentration on Puritan iconoclasm of the seventeenth century when statues associated with royal power, such as the Cheapside Cross in London, became the focus of destruction.

However, what I would call ‘decolonizing iconoclasm’ has really picked up in the years since 2015 when the #RhodesMustFall movement unfolded at the University of Cape Town. As well as confederate statues in the USA, statues of Captain Cook have been the focus of attacks in Australia and New Zealand.

Until now, protests about statues of slave traders and colonialists in the UK have focused on campaigns to get the relevant authorities to remove them, as ultimately happened in Cape Town. Events in Bristol today suggest a shift towards something slightly different.

Just over a week ago, I submitted the manuscript for a book on South African art, the introduction of which takes the #RhodesMustFall campaign UCT as its starting point. In 2015, it was Eric Garner’s cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ which echoed across the Atlantic, but the underlying issues of structural racism were the same.

Although the book won’t be published for a few months, I wanted to share part of the introduction, since I think it sketches some of the background around #RhodesMustFall, but also demonstrates, I hope, that in that case, Rhodes’ fall provided an opportunity to think about what sort of alternatives might take its place:

Introducing the Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa

Chris Wingfield1, John Giblin2 & Rachel King3

  • 1 Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, formerly University of Cambridge
  • 2 National Museum of Scotland, formerly British Museum
  • 3 University College London, formerly University of Cambridge

On 9 March 2015, Chumani Maxwele, a fourth-year political science student, arrived at the upper campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) – halfway up the mountain that overlooks the city, built on a parcel of land bequeathed to the nation of South Africa by Cecil John Rhodes. Maxwele had travelled from the apartheid-era township of Khayelitsha by minibus taxi, the main form of transport for the majority of the population, carrying with him a portaloo cartridge full of faeces.  Bare chested, but wearing a pink hard hat and cardboard sign around his neck stating “Exhibit @ White Arrogance U.C.T.”, Maxwell blew a whistle and began throwing shit at the seated statue of Rhodes, who had overseen the main pedestrian approach onto the campus for the previous half century. The press photographer he invited along captured Maxwele’s protest, magnifying its impact through the global circulatory possibilities of social and digital media. 

In the weeks that followed, Maxwele’s actions reverberated around the world, initiating the #RhodesMustFall movement and prompting the largest student protests in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The movement has subsequently inspired further protests and acts of decolonial iconoclasm in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, and 55 years to the month after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which a protest against South Africa’s infamous pass laws resulted in the police killing 69 people and injuring 180 others (including 29 children), all of whom were unarmed, South African student activism once again took centre stage in conversations about decolonisation unfolding around the globe.

An enormous amount has already been written about #RhodesMustFall and its consequences and we do not attempt to summarise nor cite what is becoming a substantial literature. What we intend to highlight here, however, are the ways in which Maxwele’s iconoclasm, as a political, symbolic and performative act, located art at the centre of forms of political contestation in contemporary South Africa. As the hashtag #RhodesMustFall transmuted into #FeesMustFall, and inspired subsequent hashtags such as #ZumaMustFall, what became most clear about ‘fallist’ movements was that they found their focus in negation. The anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, in attempting to theorise the relationship between hegemony, ideology and cultural practice, as it relates to tensions experienced between official rhetoric and mundane practice, suggested in their major 1991 work, Of Revelation and Revolution, that:

The premises of racial and sexual inequality are no longer acceptable, at least in the official rhetoric of most modern states – although, in the world of mundane practice, the battle to control key signs and ostensibly neutral values rages on. Even when there is no well-formed opposing ideology, no clearly articulated collective consciousness among subordinate populations, such struggles may still occur. But they are liable to be heard in the genre of negation – refusal, reversal, the smashing of idols and icons – and not in the narrative voice of political argument.                                                                      

(Comaroff & Comaroff 1991, 27)

Iconoclasm is undoubtedly a violent act, directed towards art, artefacts and objects rather than human bodies, but can this violence nevertheless serve a creative purpose? Are acts of decolonising iconoclasm, such as Maxwele’s, simply acts of negation – outbursts and expressions of violence that result from a daily experience of structural contradictions that come to feel unbearable – or can we also understand them as simultaneously creative artistic performances through which the possibilities of alternative futures can be glimpsed? Can acts of protest and negation make things visible that are far harder to express in what the Comaroffs’ call ‘the narrative voice of political argument’? Is this not at least part of the social function of art, and can we pursue Alfred Gell’s (1998, 84) insight that iconoclasm is a form of ‘art-making in reverse’? Does this at least partly explain Bruno Latour’s (2005, 17) observation that iconoclasm frequently strikes ‘sideways’ with ancillary (and often creative) effects? According to David Freedberg, the iconoclastic act is so frightening because: 

It opens realms of power and fear that we may sense but cannot quite grasp. When the iconoclast reacts with violence to the image and vehemently and dramatically attempts to break its hold on him or her, then we begin to have some sense of its potential – if we do not perceive it in the flash of light that blinds us, finally to its art. 

(Freedberg 1989, 425)

Can we understand recent South African iconoclasm in the decolonising mode as a commentary on the power of the image, on creative action, and ultimately on art itself? What light does this shed on the far longer history of artistic practices in the region, and can we use the resulting insights to explore the ways in which art has played a central role in the very long history of human life in the land now called South Africa? 

The three performances related to #RhodesMustFall that we explore below, arguably exemplify three modes of art-making and unmaking that we believe can help us to better understand art’s multiple pasts in South Africa, but also point to alternative futures.

1. Protest as Performance

 During his protest, Maxwele’s was reported as saying:

There is no collective history here. Where are our heroes and ancestors? I feel suffocated by the presence of these colonial memorials at UCT. We take this protest across the country. Black students can’t breathe on campus.

(Boersema 2017, 3)

The first part of Maxwele’s statement might be read as a demand for the representation and memorialisation of heroes of South Africa’s ‘struggle’ against apartheid – most often the black men such as Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, who have been a major focus for the heritage industry in the two decades since the end of apartheid. It could be argued that the epitome of this movement can be found in the ‘National Heritage Monument Company’, established in 2011 by Dali Tambo, media personality and son of the ANC politician Oliver Tambo, which has set about creating a series of up to 400 bronze sculptures of individuals from South African history representing ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’.2 But the second half of Maxwele’s statement suggests something slightly different. Jacob Boersema (2017) has pointed out that ‘I can’t breathe’ emerged as a slogan of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the USA during the previous year, following the suffocation by police of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, when he can be seen on the YouTube film of the event repeatedly crying out this phrase. Black Lives Matters protesters carried placards stating ‘I can’t breathe’, as well as a quote attributed to Frantz Fanon, which read ‘When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe’ (Boersema 2017, 3).

Fanon remains the indispensable guide to the psychological impacts of colonialism as well as to the political project of decolonisation, for academics, analysts and activists alike. Indeed, his description of the colonial world as ‘A world divided into compartments, a motionless, Manichaeistic world, a world of statues: the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with its stones the backs flayed by whips’ (Fanon 1967, 40) is an excellent explanation of the significance of the Rhodes statue. Or at least as relevant as the cartoon by the South African political cartoonist Zapiro, which provides a graphic take on why black students find it hard to breathe around the statue.

Maxwele’s question about ‘our heroes and ancestors’ can be read in the light of Fanon’s definition of decolonisation as ‘quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men’ (Fanon 1967, 27). Fanon (1967, 30) suggested that ‘there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place’ and by extension, Maxwele’s question about ‘our heroes’ can be seen as a demand that they be set up in the place of Rhodes. Fanon’s chapter Concerning Violence in The Wretched of the Earth in many ways provides a somewhat prophetic explanation of the role of iconoclasm in the #RhodesMustFall movement:

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters…

(Fanon 1967, 31)

Furthermore, Fanon suggests that violence plays an important role in the decolonial struggle:

At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.

(Fanon 1967, 74)

But is Maxwele’s protest simply to be understood as an act of negating violence directed towards an icon of southern Africa’s violent colonial history? This particular statue of Rhodes has, after all, been a focus of protest action on a number of occasions over the previous half century (Schmahmann 2016).

 For instance, in May 2014, less than a year before Maxwele’s protest, on the eve of a student debate about the possible relocation of the statue, it was stencilled with the words ‘Remember Marikana’. This referenced the killing of striking mine workers at the Marikana mine in August 2012, which saw 34 people killed and at least 78 wounded by South African police – the greatest loss of life at the hands of the South African security forces since 1976. The mine they were protecting is owned by Lonmin, a London registered company. The words ‘Remember Marikana’ were accompanied by an iconic image of Mgcineni Noki, known as the man in the green blanket, one of the leaders of the protest who was killed at Marikana. The image was produced by Tokolos Stencils – a collective of anonymous graffiti artists in Cape Town, who claimed responsibility in a statement that declared: 

In honour of all black UCT students whose land was stolen from their ancestors and whose natural re-sources were privatised by one Cecil John Rhodes. Tokolos reminds us that colonialism and the massacre at Marikana are not only interconnected but part of a long history of dispossession, exploitation and murder of blacks (and especially poor blacks).3

It is perhaps not surprising that such a prominent statue on a University campus, to such a controversial figure, should become the regular focus of protests, but there is arguably something different about the nature of Maxwele’s protest. 

Unlike earlier anonymous acts of night-time painting,4 Maxwele’s assault on Rhodes was a performance in its own right, staged for the all-seeing eye of the internet, which juxtaposed Rhodes’s impassive metallic stare with a living, breathing, black body. The racial contrast between these bodies was also underlined by their dress, with Rhodes in his a business suit, while Maxwele’s hard hat and shirtless body referenced generations of South African miners, including his own father, alongside those killed at Marikana – forced, by the imposition of government taxes and policies that systematically removed their productive land, to become the reserve army of rural labour needed by the extractive mineral economy. As well as juxtaposing breath and death, black and white, businessman and labourer, Maxwele’s protest created a confrontation between stone and bronze and the raw matter of life – piss and shit. In describing the actions that led up to the protest, Maxwell stated that:

Kasibe… suggested that we use human excrement that runs exposed through Khayelitsha so that we could speak to the urgent need for human dignity for the black people living in shacks in Khayelitsha in inhumane conditions and indignity. Kasibe said that, by throwing poo at the statue of Rhodes, we would symbolise the filthy way in which Rhodes mistreated our people in the past. Equally, we would show disgust at the manner in which UCT, as a leading South African institution of learning, celebrates the genocidal Rhodes. In short, the poo would be an institutional appraisal of UCT.                                                                                                                                                                   

(Marback 2018, IV)

In their deployment of such polyvalent symbolism, Maxwele and Kasibe made the protest fundamentally about the treatment of black people in the present, building on a recent history of ‘poo protests’ in the Western Cape that had developed in response to the lack of provision of basic infrastructure (Robins 2014). Pictures of state built unenclosed community toilets in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, circulated during local elections in 2011. The subsequent provision of portable toilets, which people had to use within their one room shacks, overlooked by their families, occasioned further protests in 2013, particularly when employees of the company responsible for collecting the waste went on strike. Two ANC Youth League councillors tipped the waste from one of these portable loos down the steps of the Provincial Legislature in Cape Town in June 2013 as a protest, and other protesters were arrested on their way into Cape Town carrying buckets of waste (Marback 2018, V).5 What these ‘poo protests’ attempted to do was to subvert the spatial organisation of Cape Town as a colonial city (cf. Redfield and Robins 2016). Again, Fanon suggested that:

The colonial world is a world divided into compartments…cut in two…. The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed… The settler’s town is a strongly built town, all stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage-cans swallow all the leavings, unseens, unknown and hardly thought about… The town belonging to the colonised people… is a place of ill fame… It is a world without spaciousness; men live on top of the other… The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire…’ 

(Fanon 1967, 29-30)

South Africa’s ‘poo protests’ relocate daily encounters with human waste from Fanon’s ‘native zone’ into the segregated spaces of the ‘settler’s town’. For Maxwele, this form of movement underlined the experiences of a growing number of UCT students, who themselves had to cross the dividing lines between these zones on a daily basis, only to be welcomed onto campus by the seated and suited immortal body of Cecil John Rhodes (see also Nyamnjoh 2016). A radio interview given by Maxwele the day after his protest suggests that he was keenly aware of the possibility that his protest might be perceived simply as an act of violence, and of the dangers in the way the media might frame this:

We knew that the moment we do anything that is violent, or damaging the statue, we will be deemed with the stereotype of Black violence. We sat down and thought through this thing and—because of our lived experiences—we knew that we had to use our psychological pain, our trauma, that the statue gives to us as Black students and Black staff. I am deeply traumatized by that statue. We thought: lets take the pain of our parents, the pain of our brothers and sisters in Khayelitsha, who will be using pota-potty toilets for the rest of their lives. That is my pain. Let me take that pota-potty with feces back to where it belongs. So that the powerful people—the elite—can feel how it feels to be Black.

(Boersema 2017, 4)

Through its juxtapositions and redeployments, Maxwele’s protest was a creative bricolage intended to highlight Black pain, in the expectation of an empathetic response. White arrogance, as he understood it, emerged from what he described as ‘white norms, white standards and white attitudes’. Taking down the statue would be a first step in displacing whiteness and the white experience as the assumed basis for institutional values at UCT. 

The response to Maxwele’s protest swiftly picked up on issues of institutional racism that extended beyond the statue itself. Kgotsi Chikane, son of a former anti-apartheid and ANC politician, called an open-air campus meeting on Facebook to develop a ‘Plan of Action in order to change the institutional racism within this campus’ (Boersema 2017, 10). Hundreds of students came together on 12 March 2015, and following the meeting, the Student Representatives Council covered the Rhodes state with a red blanket and a sheet and released a statement. However, it was Jerome September who tweeted a photograph of the students gathering on 12 March which he tagged with the hashtag #Rhodesmustfall, initiating the hash tag that came to define the movement (Boersema 2017, 11).

Alongside rapidly unfolding conversations and consciousness raising activities, daily student-led protests at the statue developed an increasing focus on institutional racism. On 16 March the protesting students covered the Rhodes statue in black sheet plastic – another expression of negation – demanding a date for the removal of the statue from University management. On 20 March, the movement organised its largest protest yet, involving a coalition of students, staff, workers, union leaders and political representatives. Maxwele was invited to address the meeting, and his words are significant: 

Amandla! On Monday, when I protested, my institution, UCT, thought I was a barbaric, a lunatic, who does not know what to do. But today you are answering that message. Our message is a cry of AC Jordan. It is a cry of Mafeje. It is the cry of Mamdani. It is a Black cry. It is a cry of the workers. It is a cry of the staff.

(Boersema 2017, 13)

Maxwele’s references were to black former members of academic staff who had suffered discrimination, silencing and ultimately exile from South Africa, in part at the hands of the university.6 When Max Price, the University’s Vice Chancellor attempted to address the protesters, his microphone was switched off and protesters stormed and occupied the University’s administrative building, which they renamed Azania House.7On 27 March 2015, the UCT senate voted in favour of the removal of the statue, and the statue was boarded up pending the final decision of the university’s council. On 9 April 2015, it was removed.

2. Re-staging ‘The Fall’

The Fall is a play, written and produced by UCT drama students to document their experiences of the #RhodesMustFall movement, which was staged at UCT’s Baxter Theatre and later toured to the Edinburgh festival and the Royal Court Theatre in London. Like Maxwele’s protest it is a performance, but differs in attempting to narrate the varying, and sometimes conflicting, experiences and perspectives of a group of UCT students through imaginative recollection and scripting. Cayha (The Light), one of these characters, reflected on the impact the original protest action had, stating:

Chumani, the comrade that threw pota-pota on the statue was almost at a loss for words about how shit it is for blacks at this university. Throwing some pooh on that statue was one-hundred-percent articulate. It is amazing, really, how everyone got lit over some pota-pota on a statue, but there was some very hard work around transformation long before he did that.                                              

(The Fall 2017, 16)

This recognises the power that Maxwele’s original protest carried, as what Richard Marback (2018) has called ‘An Embodied Rhetorical Assertion’, but also the ways in which this built on an unfolding conversation on the campus. However, what ‘The Fall’ captures most powerfully is the feeling that many students had that they were participating in a movement that represented a turning point in history. Kgothatso (The One Who Discovers), one of the other characters states that:

On our way to Upper [Campus] I swear I could feel the bones of our ancestors moving with us, supporting us in our first step of decolonisation.

(The Fall 2017, 32)

Chwaita (The Young One), expresses it another way:

When Rhodes fell, the world stopped. History was suspended in the air and continued to wash over us, like a salty healing wave… I heard the slaves who hadn’t arrived and the singing on the Mendi. I heard the cameras buzz. I heard Eric Garner across the Atlantic. The taunts of the people around me, reprimands at the excited crowd – we’re foaming at the mouth! I heard the noose pull. The tree branch snap.

(The Fall 2017, 34)

Boitshoko (The One Who Perseveres) describes the moment when the crane lifted the statue and everything slowed down:

Rhodes was suspended in the air and he swung a few inches above the plinth… like he wasn’t sure if he could get off, or not. It looked like his ghost was fighting back, trying to make him topple over and crush our black bodies one more time. But he was gone… He was finally gone… I felt as if our land had just heaved a giant sigh of relief; a space to breathe at last. As the statue landed on the flatbed truck, I saw the look of arrogance on his face. So I jumped on that truck and gave him six lashings with my belt.

(The Fall 2017, 33)

The un-making of the Rhodes statue at UCT provided a cathartic focus for the desired un-making of South Africa’s racial and political order. But the image of the young black student lashing Rhodes with his belt was picked up by the media and featured in many newspaper accounts of the event. As the play re-stages events, this became the moment that incipient tensions in the student movement began to fracture. The issues of gender and sexuality had been simmering throughout the occupation and now that the statue was gone, those tensions began to boil over, with radical feminists and trans-activists asking the men to account for their patriarchal behaviour – delivering a beating with one’s belt is associated in South Africa with the imposition of male violence and discipline in domestic settings:

CHWAITA (The Young One): What you guys did was to definitely derail our narrative! By jumping on that plinth, you gave the media this big photo op! We know the media do that. They’re not going to focus on these little statements we made as women. The media is only interested in the dramatic picture, so when you jumped on the plinth, you immediately elevated yourselves. Now, ding! This picture is all over social media, all over the news, looking like you are the leaders of this movement.

CAMILLA (The One Who Searches): And on top of that, cadre, you should’ve heard what those European journalists were saying about you. You know, the minute he pulled out his belt and started hitting Cecil in the face, they called him a savage.

(The Fall 2017, 35-36)

It is clear that violence, manifesting as what characters in The Fall describe as hyper-masculinity – Africa striking back in the face of centuries of humiliation, emasculation and infantilization – is one of the ways in which the protests may be understood, and is indeed one of the possible futures made visible by the protest actions, performances and re-stagings of the movement – but it is not the only one.

Qhawekazi (The Brave One), another of the characters in The Fall voices another perspective:

I remember looking at the place where the statue had been and I noticed a tiny hole filled with ash and burnt paper. I remember thinking, ‘We have to fill that space with us.’ Things, shapes, people we can recognise. Now the real work of decolonising starts… I remember someone yelling, ‘We must replace it with a statue of Tata Nelson Mandela,’ and I thought, ‘No … we have enough of those, we have enough statues of men. We have enough men.’

 (The Fall 2017, 34)

3. Chapungu

Standing further back in the crowd, on her own plinth, was Sethembile Msezane, a UCT Masters of Fine Art candidate from Soweto. Numerous smart phones and cameras were trained on the Rhodes statue, but Msezane faced away, her face covered by a beaded veil, waiting, and watching the action in the reflections of other people’s sunglasses. At the moment the crane lifted the statue of Rhodes, Msezane raised her arms, gaining wings – a veritable African phoenix, rising from the fall of Rhodes. 

Msezane’s performance was complex and multi-layered. Like Maxwele’s original protest it juxtaposed her own black living and breathing body with the bronze embodiment of Rhodes. However, its female form added a further juxtaposition, as did her outfit. In Msezane’s Public Holiday series, performed during 2013 and 2014 before the advent of #RhodesMustFall, Msezane had also stood on a plinth in various locations to underline the absence of the memorialization of black female bodies in public spaces. Just as her choice of outfit on each of these occasions connected to the public holiday in question, what she wore on 9 April 2015 was highly deliberate.

In 1889, the hunter Willie Posselt forced his way into the hilltop enclosure at Great Zimbabwe, where he found a series of carved stone birds positioned around an altar. He set about hacking the best specimen from its stone plinth, much to the consternation of local people, who were held back at gunpoint (Hubbard 2009, 110). Posselt sold the bird to Rhodes, and some think this may have at least partly inspired the invasion of the country by Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1891. Rhodes adopted the bird as a personal emblem, incorporating it as an architectural element in his various houses, in Cape Town, as well as the gatehouse of the estate he purchased outside Newmarket in the UK. It remains a significant feature of Rhodes’ House in Oxford to this day.

The bird most likely represented Chapungu, the bateleur eagle, which is regarded as a mediator with the ancestors in Zimbabwe. Following independence in 1980, when the country previously known as Southern Rhodesia took the name of the ancient site, Zimbabwe, the bird became a feature on the new national flag and coat of arms, also appearing on coins and notes. In 1981 the South African government returned four of the birds, removed in excavations sponsored by Rhodes’ British South African Company, and in 2003 the Ethnological Museum in Berlin returned the pedestal of another (Munjeri 2009). The bird that belonged to Rhodes, however, remains in the library at Groote Schuur, his house slightly further down the mountain from the UCT campus, which until 1994 was the South African presidential residence, and is now a museum.

Sethembile Msezane’s embodiment of Chapungu had been prompted by a recurring dream, and her more recent work Falling (2017) attempts to explore the perspective of the bird that remains in exile, and the view expressed by some Zimbabweans that there will continue to be unrest in the country until the final bird is returned. It is significant that Msezane’s work connected the removal of the Rhodes statue so explicitly to the collecting and potential return of ancient African works of art, given the connections this makes between iconoclasm, collecting and the consignment of objects into museums (cf. Wingfield 2016), but also the links it makes between iconoclasm and repatriation (cf. Wingfield 2010). A number of commentators on the Rhodes statue itself stated that it had become an anachronism that belonged in a museum, rather than a University campus, and as Cynthia Kros (2015) has pointed out, the fate of the Rhodes statue at UCT was ultimately not destruction, but indefinite preservation. Msezane’s refocussing of attention away from Rhodes and onto Chapungu makes the case for the importance of a reverse move that would provide precolonial African art with a contemporary presence and significance. Indeed, much of Msezane’s work draws attention to the different ways in which the past can be manifested in the present. When she was interviewed by Douglas Foster for the Atlantic, Msezane recalled her experience standing on the plinth when she tried to meditate on the deeper meaning of the historic moment:

How arrogant, she thought, to install monuments to powerful individuals across such a beautiful landscape in the first place. Permanent installations, even of heroes, eventually inflicted ‘the kind of pain’ associated with the Rhodes Statue… Their presence only encouraged a culture of narcissistic, bankrupt triumphalism. ‘I don’t really understand why we should have any of them,’ she mused. ‘Why do we ever litter a landscape like that?’

 (Foster 2015 )

In a subsequent TED talk, Msezane has argued that ‘The preservation and the act of remembering can be achieved in more memorable and effective ways.’8

Decolonisation as Art Practice

These three examples of artistic performances, each closely connected with #RhodesMustFall, provide alternative visions of the movement, but also alternative perspectives on art-making and un-making in South Africa. Maxwele’s protest, for all its thoughtfulness, represents decolonial action in the mode of Fanon, the liberatory moment of violence, arising from unbearable contradictions, but leading perhaps to ‘quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’ (Fanon 1967, 27). “The Fall” represents performance as re-enactment, but a re-enactment which clarifies and attempts to work through the complexities and multiple perspectives lost in the heat of political action. Sethembile Msezane’s work Chapungu-The Day Rhodes Fell looks forward to alternative futures made possible by decolonial action, futures which explicitly connect to the precolonial African past, and to modes of thought and practice that have been largely displaced and marginalised by the colonial ordering of knowledge. Each of these performances, in their different ways re-present both the past and the present, and in doing so make it possible to re-imagine alternative futures (cf. Hamilton 2017).

In his essay ‘What is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars’, originally published to accompany the 2005 exhibition Iconoclash, Bruno Latour (2010) asked, ‘How is it possible to go beyond the cycle of fascination, repulsion, destruction, and atonement, which is generated by the forbidden-image worship?’ His answer, at least partly, was through embracing ‘cascades of images’. ‘By writing about images, objects, statues, signs and documents in a way that demonstrates the connections they have with other images, objects, statues, signs and documents’, Latour (2010, 91) suggested that the argument can be made that ‘Images do count… because they allow one to move to another image, exactly as frail and modest as the former one, but different’.

Through a concentration on the origins of the #RhodesMustFall movement, we have tried to indicate the ways that it embodied much of Latour’s vision. Intervening in the vision of history embodied by the Rhodes statue, it was as much about art-making as art-unmaking – about intervening in the cascade of images in a way that paralleled the interventions of cartoonists such as the political satirist Zapiro.9 Indeed, the critic and curator Thuli Gamedze argued in December 2015 for ‘Decolonization as Art Practice’, suggesting that ‘MustFallness is an ideology… speaking to decolonisation… as a way to make space for new ideas, and new ways of being’ but also as ‘an art discipline… of creative and risky thinking, and a discipline of mobilisation and activism, based on a desire to see new images, and to create new symbols’ (Gamedze 2015). However, Gamedze (2015) suggests that it is an approach ‘that has little to do with the art institution, with the implication that ‘we are forced to deal with art outside of the institution, and to engage with images that actually affect us all.’ Gamedze (2015) suggests that it is necessary to de-specialize creativity so that we can play with it more consciously as a political tool’, asking:

If we seek to truly understand art as a discipline with the potential to engage all and every subject matter, then will this kind of conscious image-engagement destroy the white cube, a colonial construction that segregates ‘art knowledge’, and dilutes its potential to catalyze and mobilize real change? #FineArtMustFall?

Gamedze argues that we can expand art to the extent that when we talk about art, we are speaking of a conscious, creative approach that is in response to images, and through response, creates its own images. In a time when the majority of images are consumed online and through social media, when so many people carry smart phones in their pockets, the making and circulation of images, including images of un-making, has arguably already been radically de-specialised.10 Are our contemporary circumstances genuinely novel, or do they rather reflect the de-segregated and de-specialized way in which art and image making have operated for the majority of human history, at least in South Africa?


1. The conference was held between the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge and the British Museum, between 27th and 29th October 2016. It was supported financially by a major conference grant from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, as well as additional financial support from the Centre of African Studies and the Smuts Memorial Fund at the University of Cambridge.

2. These sculptures are ultimately intended to form part of a visitor park targeted on Heritage tourism, in a complex that will also include Africa’s largest water park. See:

3. See:

4. In the late 1970s, it had been painted pink by a group of students in protest at what they saw as UCT’s wasteful expenditure on their 150th anniversary celebration. One of the protesters said they had directed their protest at the statue of Rhodes as this was representative of “what U.C.T. has done and is still doing, namely facilitating the exploitation of the majority of South Africans.” Whether pink, served simply to parody, or to signify Rhodes’ alleged homosexuality either in 1970 or as the colour of Maxwele’s helmet, is unclear. In 2008, graffiti appeared on the plinth which read ‘Fuck your dream of Empire’. This referenced a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Song of Cities’ relating to Cape Town inscribed on the plinth which read:




5. It is undoubtedly significant that the Western Cape, and Cape Town in particular, is not dominated by the ANC in the way that other parts of the country are. Since 2009, the Democratic Alliance has maintained a majority in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

6. Archibald Campbell Mzolisa “A.C.” Jordan (1906-1968) was a novelist, literary historian and pioneer of African linguistics, who was appointed senior lecturer in African languages at the University of Cape Town in 1946. In 1961 when he was offered a Carnegie bursary to conduct research in the United States, but was refused a passport by the apartheid government. He was forced to leave South Africa on an exit permit, and settled in America where he was appointed professor in African Languages and Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2015 the University of Cape Town renamed the Arts Block after Jordan. 

Archibald ‘Archie’ Mafeje (1936 – 2007) was a South African anthropologist who was appointed Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at UCT in 1968, but the appointment was reversed a month later because of pressure from the apartheid government, prompting a nine day student occupation on campus involving an estimated 600 students.

Mahmood Mamdani (1946 – ) is a Ugandan academic who was appointed the inaugural AC Jordan chair of African Studies at UCT in 1996. He left UCT in 1998 following disagreements with the administration on his draft syllabus of a foundation course on African called ‘Problematizing Africa’, which led to his suspension from teaching (see

7. Max Price was Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town from 2008 to 2018. A qualified medical doctor, as a student Price was President of the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand from 1976 to 1978, and was arrested and detained in solitary confinement for 12 days by apartheid police for organising commemorations to mark the first anniversary of the Soweto Uprising.

8. See:

9. Zapiro’s cartoons provide a complex visual commentary on South African politics and history, and also featured in the South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition at the British Museum in the section on anti-apartheid protest art.

10. The poet Koleka Putuma, in her poem ‘Dear Allen’, performed on the day that Rhodes fell, and posted to the #RhodesMustFall Facebook group the following day (available at, put it another way:

They drew spears in jest.

Sort to reclaim bourgeois galleries as a space to display lost and defamed lineage

And in the meantime, they were redeeming the meaning of freedom

They wrote poems for a living and called it art

Made art and called it a living

They romanticised about making Theatre

That reflected who they thought they were


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