By Jordan Griffiths
When I first heard of the #RhodesMustFall movement my response was simple, the statue must come down. For me it wasn’t even a question. I was privileged enough to have spent two years on the student council at the University of Pretoria (UP). I saw how aggressively transformation was fought at the institution, not only by student groups but by alumni as well. I also saw how poorly it was understood, particularly by white students.
Hence I was surprised when transformation became such a dominant issue at what are considered the more “progressive liberal” institutions in the country, namely the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. Usually it was always the conservative institutions such as UP, the University of Stellenbosch and the University of North-West that caught the spotlight for these issues. Last year they did, we had blackface at Tuks and the initiation practice at Pukke which involved a Nazi salute.
Thus, having operated at a university where transformation was a major issue, for me the Rhodes statue was a no-brainer. To give Cecil John Rhodes a statue at a pride of place position at a tertiary institution makes no sense, bring it down.
But the last two weeks have seen so much debate on the matter it was important to take a step back and again ask what needs to be achieved. Like many have argued, the focus on the statue could detract attention from the larger issues affecting the institutions specifically with regards to the creation of a racially inclusive atmosphere, a space where students feel they belong.
The focus on the Rhodes statue has been dominated by two positions, some want the statue gone and others want it to stay. But there is a third narrative that has been drowned out, it is the view that the Rhodes statue can stay, but be altered or changed. There is now a space at the University of Cape Town (UCT), nay, an opportunity to use the space that the Rhodes statue occupies to tell a story. A story that will resonate with the current students but will also be seen by future students at UCT where they will be able to reflect on what their peers were able to achieve.
What if there is an active effort by UCT and the student representative council to think creatively about how the space that Rhodes occupies can be used to symbolise transformation at the institution. I know for many their minds are already made up, there is no other option but for the statue to come down, and I get it. For them the fight for transformation will be represented by a blank space where the Rhodes statue once stood, but perhaps just perhaps we could think further then just pulling down the statue.
I’m not the creative type, I can’t draw or paint, least of all sculpt, but hear me out for a minute. What if we leave the statue and instead surround it with other art work. Other statues of some of our leaders, or scenarios of our history and remove the focus that Rhodes has in this space. We can shape South Africa’s narrative where he is just one character among others in the country’s history.
One particular image which jumped into my head was the construction of two miners alongside Rhodes, both of them bringing their pickaxes down into his statue while he looks on. There is so much more that can be done to make this space that Rhodes occupies feel transformed than to merely tear down his statue.
This is an opportunity for all those at UCT, including the entire student body, to bring in the arts department and engage in how they can more accurately depict this country’s history and illustrate transformation. So that future students can acknowledge the history of transformation at UCT as well.
Jordan Griffiths spent two years on the student council at the University of Pretoria, one as chairperson in 2013. He is currently a researcher at Media Tenor South Africa and completing his master’s degree in security studies.