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The art of hypocrisy: Appeal to re-constitute Shackville

By Shobane

A wave of condemnations and outrage hit the media after University of Cape Town artworks were burnt on campus. Even those academics, who from the rooftops declared their support for the fees must fall movement were very quick to distance themselves from what they saw as a particularly “senseless” act.

This violence, it seemed, was misinformed, uncultured and uncouth. “How could the students not understand the cultural value of artworks” on campus? Worse, “they have shot themselves in the foot by unwittingly burning the works of “the first black student to have received a master’s degree in fine art at UCT.” (Note, of course, the silence about the other portraits.)

Some have started to doubt the nobility and “rationality” of the cause. Seen as a potential threat to all university art collections as well as cooperative staff and student security, the movement was, in a bizarre fashion, compared to Isil. It seemed, in this upheaval, that all South Africans would be worse off if any artwork is destroyed as this artwork in general like colonial architecture is our “common heritage.”

There’s something wrong with this picture.

First, let’s really think about the things that were lost in the fire. Let’s think about the things that were lost through violence in the name of civilisation. In 1874, Kumasi was blown up and destroyed by the British. In 1897, Benin City and its artworks were burned down and looted under the administration of Admiral Harry Rawson. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, missionaries who saw African wooden sculptures as “fetishes” systematically burned them down. There are too many examples of colonial violence – citing all of them would leave us a continent of ashes. These were of course fires that did not only decimate valuable art and architecture but lives were lost.

And lives are lost habitually in “civilised” Cape Town. It is striking that the strong condemnation against violence and “particularly tragic” loss of artwork is absent when there are rampant shack fires in which lives are lost. How could a potent symbol like Shackville fly over so many academic heads? If it was enough to threaten the “sense of security” to professors owning second or third coastal homes, insured to the point of insanity, then it was a really significant historical feat. Shackville engages, at a profound intellectual level, with the game of symbolism already at play – except this time, the spectators are participants. And this time, the co-called cultural value has to account for shared values, if there are any. As black people, we are often asked to “get over” the violence of the past, and of the present. Since we live in a country of “shared values” and “common heritage,” we should equally be able to state: “Get over the artworks.” And this would still not begin to level the playing field.

UCT (Photo by Luckydean)
UCT (Photo by Luckydean)

This is not a revanchist exercise, but I find myself astonished at how amnesia intoxicates the judgment that criminalises a bold and frank response to injustice. Reactions to recent university housing protest fires highlighted the value placed on objects over black lives. Somehow, the artistic assets needed more protection because their posterity would benefit “many.” Cars were mourned, busses were mourned, and artworks that had become meaningless even to the artist who made them were mourned.

It seems absurd, to me, to ask the oppressed to enjoy and “appreciate” and mourn the art of the oppressor. And it is equally absurd to appeal to social cohesion as the role of art in the most unequal society. Especially when that “art” has been used to dominate. Art as we know it today survives because it has annihilated many people-centred forms of art-making. Art was not always for frames and walls. Who is asking about the decimation of our art? Traces of it are relegated to market squares, as undervalued crafts for tourist titillations. Museums in “civilised” countries are filled with the proof of that violence and the tragic destruction of our art. Entire museums set up not only with objects looted after violent fires were set up on entire cities but also heads of kings displayed as trophies.

None wants to be reminded of this violence but perhaps if there are condemnations then they should be accompanied by admissions of complicity. Better yet, there needs to be some cognizance the significance of Shackville as protest art. Institutional critique has long been a major tenet in art, and Shackville became a site for re-opening important debates about the illusive shared fate in South Africa. Is this not what valuable art should really be about: giving perspective to the injustices that have become “normalised”.

Shackville made visible what Frantz Fanon (1968: 41) called the Manichean colonial world:

“The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”

The profaning of “value”, in 2015, when the cultural atmosphere on campus came alive through the removal of the Rhodes statue, made the brutality of that Manichean world visible. Similarly, Shackville radically and frankly re-opened the question of violence and whose lives matter. Suddenly the univer-topia, divulged the dead bodies that lie at its foundations. It revealed that transformation had been like mowing the lawn with blunt-nosed scissors in order to maintain the duality that constructs value through devastation.

This juxtaposition – the ill-named Jameson Plaza and the shack where many came to gather – is really an important point of departure.

Let’s find our common voice: re-constitute Shackville

Shobane writes in her capacity as umuntu omnyama. She is a member of the Black Academic Caucus.


  • Black Academic Caucus (BAC) is a platform that advocates for inclusive and diverse academic institutions that also prioritise black academics and their knowledge. Committed to transformation and decolonisation of UCT primarily, and influencing the higher education landscape in South Africa, BAC will advocate for curriculum and research scholarship that is linked to social justice and the experiences of black people. This blog hopes to establish a community of black scholars, engage academics, students and citizens and debate on issues affecting transformation and decolonisation of higher education in South Africa.


  1. Too Black Too Black 8 March 2016

    Nice article

  2. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 8 March 2016

    The use of inverted commas around a word, does not necessarily make it less true.

    I suggest you Google a bit into when books and art got burned in the past. You can of course choose not to look at history, you can keep on shirking all accountability, while always pointing at others, you can excuse violence based on one man’s view (Fannon , which can be interpreted in many ways, and by many is seen to not be valid in South African context). Just do not expect to be listened to, when you refuse to listen to others.
    Till then a few comments:
    Art itself does cannot be “used” to dominate as you seem to describe…only people can do that.
    Who decides which art is permissible and for whom? You? Some hate fueled mob? Maybe an ANC censorship board?
    What gives you the right to destroy others property with impunity? The law? Your version of morals? Your anger?
    Do you think that your actions have consequences that you may not predict? What happens when someone innocent gets hurt? Will you take responsibility?
    How about the effect of burning universities on our credit rating? Not going to be your problem when the poorest will be getting even less money, and what little jobs we have go into the winds?
    I have been hearing romantic calls for a Arab spring and revolution from students ….been to Egypt lately? Do you even know what you are calling for?

    Funny thing is, you will probably put me in some drawer, take one look at my name and condemn me…oh the irony! But just maybe I am wrong about that…I really hope.

  3. Rebecca Pointer Rebecca Pointer 9 March 2016

    This is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. However, it leaves me wondering: how does the cycle of violence ever end? Where does it take us? I feel deep sadness and despair about the destruction, lives and culture lost through colonialism, apartheid, and post-apartheid neglect, but I also feel some sadness when buses burn etc (I slightly revel when I heard about colonial paintings burnt tho, those painting should have been removed 20 or more years ago). Still I ask, when does it end, will it ever end?

  4. michael michael 9 March 2016

    This is going to end in tears for everyone.

  5. John Chimhanzi John Chimhanzi 9 March 2016

    Perhaps the hypocrisy that the writer speaks of is distributed quite evenly? Should we, as Africans, not rather be identifying ourselves by our universal humanity and the inclusiveness that is the mark of African kindness and common decency? Should we not be following the values of Gandhi and Sankara, socialists who had a global vision and universal values for mankind? Less the writer not realise how grating the article can seem – imagine this were 1930’s Europe, and the writer were a member of the White Academics Forum , writing in her capacity of White Nordic Aryan, rather than umuntu omnyama. Surely the irony is visible – that by copying the very worst aspects of Western culture, its period of racial National Socialism, that identified people primarily by race, and burned books in the name of culture, we as Africans have not only degraded ourselves but have by implication praised and copied that very worst aspect of Western inhumanity that we pretend to abhor?

  6. Rory Short Rory Short 9 March 2016

    “First, let’s really think about the things that were lost in the fire.
    Let’s think about the things that were lost through violence in the name
    of civilisation. In 1874, Kumasi …..”

    Two wrongs simply do no make a right. Another common phrase for such behaviour is ‘tit for tat’. The presumption that goes along with the use of that phrase is that there is, in the act, no resolution to the underlying problem. There is not even a suggestion of a solution to the problem and that surely is what everybody is seeking. Or isn’t it?

  7. Philip Cole Philip Cole 11 March 2016

    Excellent comment John which cuts to the core problem of selective historical memory of so many of the #RhodesMustFall protestors. Yes, colonialism was a violent, oppressive and unjust system. Yes, the results of it still wreaks structural violence on communities as a result. Yes, we must work to build a society based on real opportunities and outcomes, in so far as we can ever achieve such a utopia.
    But no, no, no we do not create the new society by violence, which is only ever the tool of the oppressor. Any revolution which has violence as its tools will only eat its own and end up oppressing the very poor that it claims as its members. That is the lesson of both fascism and communism and their twentieth century revolutions.

  8. Pan Jandrum Pan Jandrum 17 March 2016

    A portrait of Mollie Blackburn was burnt too. Do you even know what she contributed to this country?

    The pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. Is that justification for their destruction?

    Im old, so don’t really care about the cruel future you face while vaguely wondering about it, or feeling ‘faintly’ sad about burning buses.

    Do you see that bright light at the end of the tunnel, Rebecca? Its racing towards you. If you want to survive get out of your comfortable armchair, choose a new future, and fight for it.

    There is NO END to Anything.

  9. William Gild William Gild 30 August 2018

    OK; I get it! Burning art is OK because others have suffered in the past. Makes perfect sense to me. Maybe libraries out to be torched, too. One doesn’t have to stop at artwork. Methinks there exists a lack of commitment and follow-through…

  10. William Gild William Gild 30 August 2018

    OH! Now I get it…burn art, buildings, assault others because others have done so in the past. So obvious; so clear…

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