When the statue of the British colonialist and mining magnate, Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), created by Marion Walgate in 1934, was hauled away from its Cape Town public university site to an undisclosed location, it left a poignantly empty plinth behind. This disruptive act, which turned into a political watershed, followed a durational performance art piece by a student, Chumani Maxwele, who wore a placard around his neck protesting white arrogance and splashed the statue with human faeces from a portable chemical toilet cannister, an act of ‘artivism’ effected under hacked cover of a city-wide public arts festival taking place at the time.
This wily strategy spoke the language of social justice movements in the Western Cape, which had previously included lobbing shit at prime locations: a financial company’s headquarters, the international airport, and the provincial legislature buildings among them. The objective of these acts was to afflict the powerful by bringing the so-called periphery to various centralities. University of Cape Town (UCT) now joined this ignominious line-up of the accused. Maxwele was making a potent point about what academics call slow violence and the stubborn gaps in post-apartheid South Africa between the minority ‘haves’ and the majority ‘have-nots’ where inadequate sanitation is still a prevailing reality. Despite a democratic dispensation since 1994, which rid the country of its previous white-minority rule (of colonial European descent), the majority has yet to see political victory translate into broader socio-economic gains. Hence symbols like Rhodes – of venerated dead white men – can take on a particular charge. “Maxwele complained that most black students could not breathe on campus because of the claustrophobia produced by English colonial dominance at UCT,” write Jackson & Robins (2018: 70). His intervention triggered sustained countrywide protests about related inequities rooted in the past but reinscribed in the present. A surging call for structural transformation expressed itself in the social movement #RhodesMustFall that culminated in the statue’s ejection from its elevated campus position where it lorded over passersby in a seated pose akin to Rodin’s The Thinker, chin pensively cupped in hand.
It was never just about a statue, as protestors and ongoing ricochets made clear – not only in South Africa. Since the day Rhodes was toppled, numerous colonial-era memorials in cities around the world have likewise dealt with commemorative zombies from their own colonial histories – from Edward Colston dunked in a Bristol river to Christopher Columbus beheaded in Boston. But the most riveting part of this local drama is not the moment of rupture on 9 April 2015 relayed in the media glare but its overlooked afterlife. Left vacant and crated up, the UCT plinth offers an emblematic example of how to process the unfinished business of the past toward a differently configured future.
Whether deliberately or from benign inertia, UCT is charting a way forward in this regard: its voided Rhodes plinth is not in fact voided at all. It hosts an ongoing impromptu series of unsanctioned, ephemeral interventions by students and public alike that take their cue from Maxwele’s initial protest. These range from wrapping the statue prior toppling in taped garbage bags to daily political debate at its feet, from constantly morphing graffiti and a range of visuals, texts, and poetry to performance and other artistic interventions on the empty plinth itself. Other artworks on campus have also been activated at different points in time: a large-scale print by Diane Victor that was crated up pending institutional review of the university’s permanent collection similarly became an impromptu discussion board about curatorship; a sculpture by Willie Bester in the library depicting a naked black female figure was covered by students with cloths and placards and re-imagined in an alternative exhibition context. Fine art students at a satellite university campus in September 2017 staged a protest occupation. They effectively turned the campus and its gallery into a live art installation, Umhlangano (‘our space’) that called for a different set of relations using everyday matter, vulnerability, and physical space as art materials.
In short, the plinth and its performative spin-offs offer a messy but realistic picture of what common spacemight comprise – that is, public space that belongs to nobody and to everybody. Consequently, it is space that is contested, negotiated, and daily performed anew. Performativity in this context refers to agentic capacity (and not the popular media notion of superficial signalling); otherwise put, it is about doing things with art. The UCT plinth in its current formation as a ‘leftover’ space is a compelling site of artistic commoning.
In sharp contrast, only hundreds of metres away, another Rhodes statue at a neighbouring location offers a countervailing approach. This public park called Rhodes Memorial, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak mountain, features an ongoing call and response of anonymous defacements and restorations on a bronze bust, carried out more or less in parallel to the UCT Rhodes toppling. But while the voided plinth has been left as a statement in its own right, the habitually dismembered statue of Rhodes is faithfully restored by a local heritage group calling itself Friends of Rhodes Memorial.
Rhodes once again sits in an elevated position, this time at the top of an imposing set of stone steps bracketed by bronze horsemen, lions, arches, and colonnades, a site popular with tourists and wedding parties. His bust claims an alcove at the very apex of this imposing neighbouring site. But in September 2015 (just five months after the next-door Rhodes was toppled), the bust was set alight in the dead of night, leaving burn marks behind, and the nose angle-grinded off with red graffiti sprayed to either side, and underneath: “THE MASTER’S NOSE BETRAYS HIM”. An anonymous email sent to an art collective made apparent reference to Nikolai Gogol, a 19th century Russian writer, whose absurdist novel The Nose (1836) features a protagonist who wakes up one day to find his nose has left his face and develops a life of its own. His misfortune can be read as downfall brought on by pride. Some months later, a rather cracked nose mysteriously replaced the startling gold flat triangle the anglegrinder had left behind. The truce did not last for long. In July 2020, the statue’s head was decapitated and found by a member of the public a couple of days later in some nearby bushes – unsurprisingly, as it weighs about 80 kilogrammes. Friends of Rhodes Memorial decided not only to restore the head but reinforce it with industrial strength cement, thick iron rods, an alarm, and reportedly a GPS tracker. Today, the bust of Rhodes at this public park is firmly back in place with an intense green patina testifying to its many travails, the latest of which is a mountainside fire that gutted the popular restaurant alongside.
What these two different sets of calls and responses at neighbouring sites highlight is a much larger issue at stake: how to deal with the unfinished business of the past. On the one hand, embracing the void of Rhodes as an agentic presence in itself; on the other, doggedly sticking the severed pieces back together. As Umhlangano presciently asked back in 2017: “Which way to the future?”.
After the fall (2015-2020)
Part 1: UCT plinth
Part 2: Rhodes Memorial
Shannon Jackson & Steven Robins. 2018. Making sense of the politics of sanitation in Cape Town. Social Dynamics, 44:1, 70. DOI: 1080/02533952.2018.1437879
 For more, see Gurney (2018). Zombie monument: Public art and performing the present, Cities, Special issue – Urban Geography of the Arts. Guinard, P. & Molina, G. (Eds). Vol. 7, pp. 33-38. doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2017.11.002
 For more, see Hedley Twidle. 2021. To spite his face, Harpers, harpers.org/archive/2021/12/to-spite-his-face-what-happened-to-cecil-rhodes-statue-nose/