Statue wars: what should we do with troublesome monuments?

The global protest movement to tear down urban memorials that reinforce racism is rewriting the very story of our cities. Should any monument be safe?

The incident attracted national attention and within days had grown into a full-scale protest. Students covered the Rhodes statue with graffiti and plastic bags, and promised to demonstrate until it was removed. The statue had drawn criticism before, but none of such sustained anger, even though there was no mistaking what the Rhodes monument represented. Erected in 1934, it occupied the very centre of the campus, the bronze Rhodes gazing out over the city as though contemplating creation: his and, perhaps, God’s.

Rhodes believed black Africans were a “subject race” and that white rule was the natural order. The setting and the figure’s obvious stylistic debt to Rodin’s The Thinker symbolised the “civilisational” ambitions Rhodes harboured for the colony he governed, ambitions made plain by the inscription from Kipling along the plinth: “I dream my dream / By rock and heath and pine / Of empire to the northward / Ay, one land / From Lion’s head to line.”

But there was an air of fragility, of the elegaic, at work too: the figure that looks out from its seat in photos from before the protests is bare-headed, middle-aged, mortal. It is Cecil Rhodes near the end of his life. (He died in 1902.) He contemplates his life’s work, and with it, the future that will come to pass without him. The monument didn’t satisfy itself with celebrating Rhodes; it lamented that he did not live long enough to enjoy the white-ruled South Africa he helped to create.

Students attack the defaced University of Cape Town statue of Cecil Rhodes as it is removed after a month of student demonstrations.
Students attack the defaced University of Cape Town statue of Cecil Rhodes as it is removed after a month of student demonstrations. Image Copyright: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

When the statue was installed in the pre-apartheid era, white rule couldn’t be taken for granted – not yet. The suffering of its black residents needed to be naturalised first, and to that end the monument cast Rhodes’s life’s work as a noble struggle, with his supposed civilisational achievements implicitly justifying his policies and the pain they caused. If black Africans were admitted into this anxious reality, it was so their suffering could be diminished and finally negated. They were the obstacle Rhodes surmounted. In place of their suffering we got, obscenely, his suffering.

The statue finally came down a few weeks after the Rhodes Must Fall protests began. It had stood for more than 80 years, including through two decades of majority black rule under the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela. The protests and the removal of the statue took the South African establishment by surprise, including those, such as the then president, Jacob Zuma, and the archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who a generation earlier had helped end apartheid.

The Confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters at the University of North Carolina.
The Confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters at the University of North Carolina. Image Copyright: Gerry Broome/AP

There was a time not long ago (though it feels like forever) when a kind of blindness was possible as you moved through your city – any city. You could step out of your front door and cross street after street without giving much thought to the former colonies and forgotten diplomats they memorialised; go to school or work in a building named for a famous statesman without doing a moral accounting of his achievements; eat your lunch beneath the statue of another long-ago luminary renowned for his charity without wondering about the provenance of his wealth; stop on your way home to take in a view of the city at night without imagining what, or who, was there before. To never wonder, never imagine: this was possible if your skin was a certain colour.

Little by little, that narrative began to fray. The growth and exuberance of the 1990s set the tone for a decade of reckless military adventurism, financial deregulation and economic globalisation, which in turn gave us the disastrous wars in Iraq and Syria, a market crash, multiple refugee crises and massive, rising inequality. At some point along the way, around the time of Brexit and Donald Trump, the ideas we took for granted lost their explanatory power. All around us the historical forces that have always shaped our lives have become visible. The urban monuments we barely noticed have become the centre of protest movements around the world.


As the Cape Town protests spread across South Africa, students at Oxford University in England launched their own version of Rhodes Must Fall: they marched on a statue of Rhodes at Oriel College, demanding it be torn down and that the university curriculum be changed to reflect the diversity of thought beyond the western canon.

In Berlin, social justice groups launched a campaign to rename the African Quarter because of its connection with Germany’s genocidal colonial reign in the early 20th century. The protests have challenged Germany’s self-image as a bastion of tolerance, coming as they have while the country struggles to integrate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East.


A car ploughed into counter-demonstrators following the shutdown after clashes near Lee Park, where a statue of Robert E Lee was slated to be removed.
A car ploughed into counter-demonstrators following clashes near Lee Park, where a statue of Robert E Lee was slated to be removed. Image Copyright: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The fury of the counterprotests in Charlottesville and in other cities show how high the stakes in the so-called statue wars are, and how difficult removing the symbols of slavery and colonialism will be. But the protests continue to gain momentum. In the past month, protesters toppled the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina and defaced another monument in Virginia. The city of San Francisco quietly removed a 19th-century statue that celebrated the founding of California – and the humiliation of Native American peoples. Austin, Texas, is supposedly mulling a name change because of its namesake’s association with slavery.

In Canada, the country’s founding prime minister, Sir John A MacDonald, has become the focus of opposition for his role in the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. The city of Victoria recently announced it would remove his likeness from outside city hall, and MacDonald statues in Montreal and Regina were defaced as pressure mounted to recast his legacy.

From New York to Bristol to Sydney to Bulawayo, no monument is apparently safe.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

Written By: Tyler Stiem
First Published 26.09.18:

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