Statues and Storms: Rhodes Must Fall – an idea whose time had come
Dr Max Price was vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town through the tumultuous ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests. In this extract from his book, Statues and Storms (Tafelberg), he tells the inside story of how the university’s executive resolved the issue.
On 9 March 2015, I flew to Dakar, Senegal, to participate in an African Higher Education Summit. When I arrived at the hotel in the evening there were a number of urgent messages to call Professor Sandra Klopper, the acting vice-chancellor (VC) in Cape Town. She informed me that a student, seemingly acting alone or with one or two others, had thrown faeces from a portable toilet container over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the upper campus. The statue is a bronze figure of Rhodes sitting and lost in thought, his head on his arm in a gesture of reflection. It is a homage to the man who, in his will, gifted the land which UCT now occupies.
The statue was centred at the bottom of a grand ascent of steps in front of the university’s neoclassical assembly hall, then called Jameson Hall. Leander Jameson was Rhodes’s doctor and compatriot in colonialism; it was he who, with Rhodes pulling the strings, planned and led the Jameson Raid, an attempt to effect regime change in the Transvaal Republic in 1895. So, the UCT quad, known as the Jameson or Jammie Plaza, was an enduring icon of British colonialism in South Africa. In 1934 the statue had been commissioned and erected – not exactly in the same place it now stood – to commemorate Rhodes and his gift. It had been paid for with money left over from funds that had been collected by the citizens of Cape Town for building the Rhodes Memorial higher up the mountain above the university.
The fact that there had been a protest against the presence of the statue was not unusual. Since the 1940s there have been protests, first by Afrikaans students who saw Rhodes as the colonial instigator of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. There had also been protests in the 1960s and 1970s from left-wing students who regarded apartheid as a manifestation of racial capitalism. For the left, the most egregious players had been, and still were, mining capital and tycoons like Rhodes who had achieved enormous wealth through mining companies, but had also used their political positions (Rhodes was prime minister of the Cape Colony) to create laws that would force black people off the land and into the wage economy as cheap labour on the mines.
As the university increasingly opened up to black students in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, there were protests against the statue from black and radical white students, protesting against Rhodes’s role in the conquest of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the attendant massacres of the Ndebele, as well as his part in disenfranchising black citizens of the Cape Colony. In 1999, a study of black students’ experience of UCT was published under the title “Like that statue at Jammie stairs” – a quote from a student that the authors thought summed up students’ experience of whiteness at UCT.
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Sporadic protests, and opposition to the statue, continued. In the years immediately preceding 2015 there had been renewed calls for the statue to be removed. So, the fact of a protest was not particularly distressing for my colleagues. What was distressing was the use of human excrement and the public reaction. There had been a number of “poo protests” in the Western Cape – emptying human excrement on the steps of the Western Cape legislature and in the Cape Town International Airport. The action was not unprecedented. But the desecration by faeces was still shocking. Moreover, the performance had been carefully choreographed for maximum impact in ways that would also make it hard to challenge.
The main actor was Chumani Maxwele, a 30-year-old politics student whom I happened to know personally because I had facilitated his admission as a student to UCT some four years earlier. In 2010, while jogging near campus, Maxwele was forced off the road by President Zuma’s blue-light cavalcade and had given it “the finger” to express his annoyance. In response, one of the cars stopped, and the security personnel arrested Maxwele, keeping him locked up for close to 24 hours. They also raided his flat. The press reported that he was a UCT student, but we had no record of him.
It seemed as if a quietly simmering pot had suddenly boiled over, engulfing the campus.
After his release, my office contacted him and asked him to come and see me because I wanted to understand what his relationship was with UCT. It turned out he was not a student but had worked as a research assistant for a community-based NGO. We had an agreement with the NGO that its researchers could use the UCT library, and therefore issued library cards to the researchers, which the police had assumed meant he was a student. He said he really wanted to study politics and was clearly thoughtful and articulate. He made a strong, positive impression on me – both for his degree of self-education and his social justice commitment. I connected him with the faculty and the admissions office and confirmed that he would be granted a financial aid bursary. He was enrolled the following year.
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Maxwele had planned this protest against the Rhodes statue carefully for months. Aware of possible condemnation for vandalism, he styled it as a performance so that he could defend it in the name of street-art guerrilla theatre. He was wearing a bright pink construction-site helmet, shirtless, blowing a whistle and wearing cardboard placards around his neck that said “exhibit white arrogance @ uct” in front, and, at his back “exhibit black assimilation @ uct”. He had invited a photographer and a journalist to record the performance. He had not acted in concert with a political or social movement, nor with the Student Representative Council (SRC), although he was subsequently joined by a small group of activists, including elected student leaders. The story had garnered huge publicity and the photos had gone viral on social media.
My colleagues in Cape Town were not too concerned that it would escalate. There was no immediate danger to the statue. Nor did they think this uncouth act would generate wider support. Their main focus was to condemn the form of the protest and to manage the public relations and potential reputational damage. I was reassured by the acting VC that they could handle it, and there was no need for me to rush home.
I watched through the week from afar as the protest rapidly expanded, drawing support from students across the university. It seemed as if a quietly simmering pot had suddenly boiled over, engulfing the campus. The scale of the protests surprised both the university leadership and the student and SRC leaders. A mass meeting on the Jammie Plaza on Thursday, 12 March, drew thousands of students. The crowd was diverse, including many white students. It was an opportunity to release pent-up feeling, not primarily about Rhodes, but about the persistence of colonialist culture and attitudes and the alienation felt by many black students and some staff. There was also a widely supported call for the university not to discipline Maxwele for his actions. To my great surprise, the university media coverage of the mass meeting reported that “in his speech, Maxwele thanked Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price for ‘igniting a spirit of activism’ in students”. He recalled a debate in October 2014, where I had spoken of the statue in relation to the Eurocentricity prevalent at the university. “‘Interestingly also was Dr Price’s observation that black people at UCT feel uncomfortable,’ Maxwele added.”
But why had we not done this before and what had changed that should make us take action now?
When I returned on the weekend, there was bewilderment and no consensus among our team on how to respond. There was huge pressure from alumni, politicians from all parties, staff members and our Campus Protection Services (CPS) to bring charges against Maxwele. There was also a sense that, with regard to the statue, we could not concede to its removal as this would be seen to be capitulating to mob rule and unacceptable forms of protest. (It must be said that there was no violence other than the “violation” of the statue.) There were also, already, many views being expressed in public by influential people, including President Zuma and ANC politicians, that statues memorialising the past should not be tampered with. This had been part of the post-1994 process of reconciliation – recognising the histories of the different peoples of South Africa and preserving their artefacts and memorials.
We needed to act quickly as the protests were threatening to disrupt the institution, and were dominating national and even international news. Everyone was watching to see how the executive would respond on my return. There were already eight media interviews scheduled for the first two days of the coming week – including some live radio and TV interviews. Each would be asking what action would be taken against Maxwele, and what was the university’s view on the statue. I had a wonderful senior leadership team, but we were divided on these two issues, and after hours of discussion all Sunday, it fell to me to resolve the course of action. I felt anxious and weighed down by this truly high-stakes decision affecting the future and, in a sense, the past of the university.
We first had to decide what our view should be on the central issue of the future of the statue. We considered three options. One was to leave the statue as is, but to place a plaque on its base that acknowledged the injustices of colonial conquest enacted under Rhodes’s watch. The second was to commission a counterpoint statue or artwork to be located alongside Rhodes, to “speak back” by way of alternative values and convictions.
The third option was to move the statue from its current location, to somewhere else on campus, with a plaque on the remaining pedestal explaining why it had been removed. The alternative location would be a site that would allow for fuller educational opportunities, displays and narratives through which to engage with what Rhodes stood for and his legacy.
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I finally proposed, and my executive colleagues accepted, that we should support moving the statue. As Maxwele noted, I had already suggested that I held this view in a speech the year before; a review of statues and symbols and of names of campus buildings had in fact been written into the 2015 objectives for the executive.
But why had we not done this before and what had changed that should make us take action now? While I cannot speak for the vice-chancellors who preceded me, the reason the question of removing the statue had not been formally tackled in the seven years since I had been appointed was that I had thought it would not be supported by the majority or by a sufficient critical core of the university community. And, as a corollary of that expectation, I also feared that it would be a deeply divisive debate that would split the community and alienate alumni and donors. DM
Dr Max Price was vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 2008 to 2018. Previously, he was an independent consultant in the fields of public health, health policy, medical education and human resources for health planning. He lives in Johannesburg.