The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) management will engage in public dialogue with students, academic and the public over calls for the removal of the controversial Cecil John Rhodes statue located on its upper campus. A storm has been raging over the statue of the former prime minister of the Cape Colony, which many students believe is a symbol of white colonialism and black oppression. The matter has raised temperatures on campus and has ignited a serious debate around history, heritage and transformation.
Last week students dowsed the statue in human excrement and have since wrapped it in black bags, in protest of its continued existence on campus. As such, the UCT SRC and several other student groups, following an open public dialogue on Thursday, have demanded management yield to demands for the statue to be removed.
The effigy has been an ever present at the university since 1934, erected in order to recognize Rhodes’ donation of the land upon which the university is built. This also includes the land now used by the Groote Schuur Hospital, as well as the president’s official Cape Town residence.
“It was largely in recognition of that; he wasn’t a founder of the university, which actually goes back to 1829. It was that gift (the land) that was recognized,” UCT vice-chancellor Dr. Max Price told VOC Drivetime.
The statue has over the years garnered much criticism from students and staff alike, owing to Rhodes central involvement in the Anglo-Boer war, his role in helping to extend British dominion over the Cape, as well as his colonialist ambitions. Due to his controversial nature, Price said this had led to previous student protests.
“When we had a significant number of Afrikaans students on campus, they felt certainly alienated and hostile towards Rhodes and the statue,” he said.
He added that there had never been such a critical mass in opposition, to the point where the university would have had to rethink the statues place on campus.
In the protest itself, he said it was pleasing to see that there was no situation of black students’ vs. white students, but rather an integrated collective all expressing similar views against the statue. While acknowledging that there were several other statues of colonial figures on campus, it was really on the centrality of the statue that was making it a focal point of the student’s outrage.
“It’s because the positioning of the statue says much more about the university, its values, who it holds up as heroes, and what its heritage is,” he explained, adding that this was of a broader issue of transformation on campus.
UCT management has been reluctant to cave to the demands of the SRC as yet, Price said. In light of this, the university will running a four week programme across campus, to uncover what the overall perception was amongst students. This would include public forums like open debates, lectures, as well as articles on who Rhodes was and his involvement with the university.
“We want to create a safe space for people who may think the statue should stay untouched and that we should not airbrush people out of history, even if they have a sullied past. We want to create a safe space for that,” he noted.
And even if management resolved to remove the statue, Price said they were likely to face major red tape in this regard.
“Because the statue is part of the upper campus, which is all protected by the heritage legislation, anything protected by this can’t be modified or altered without the approval of Heritage Western Cape,” he explained, suggesting that even the city council would need to seek approval for its removal.
He stressed that this should not be viewed as management trying to avoid the issue, but rather uncovering the true facts of the situation before making a decision.
UCT management is due to host a meeting with the council on the 15th April to further discuss the matter. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)