A political science student felt so angry and so strongly about a statue that early one morning he woke and drove to one of the townships on the fringes of Cape Town. Here he picked up a bucket of faeces, heavy from the night before. He put the stinking bucket into his car and drove to the University of Cape Town (UCT).
For the last few hundred yards, Chumani Maxwele, put the bucket on his shoulder. He wore running tights and a pink construction hat and clearly had no respect. His destination was the green lawns and scented flowers of the entrance to the university. He took a deep breath and threw the manure into the face of one of the world’s most famous colonialists who had died more than a century before.
Maxwele was an angry Africanist who didn’t feel this face fitted in his continent; the face belonged to the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, who died just down the road in his beach house at Muizenberg in 1902, and who donated the land to the university.
“The statue was a political symbol. Even when Rhodes was still alive and now dead, he represents a particular symbol of black people in pain, suffering and dispossession. If you look at the images of Rhodes, it’s all these African people lying with horses, his articulations and so on, you can tell there’s a direct relation between Rhodes and UCT, and UCT being controlled by white people. And there’s a direct relation with who controls the economy of the country and the state of black people. And yet the university takes so much pride in the man,” says Maxwele.
The bucket of faeces launched the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) campaign. After a month of unrest and consultations at the university, the statue was transferred to a museum in Cape Town.
The anger from UCT reverberated across the country, with dozens of colonial statues defaced or destroyed by angry youth. Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, survived two wars but couldn’t dodge the red paint of protesters outside Parliament in Cape Town.
Exactly two years after Maxwele started the campaign, FORBES AFRICA spoke to the man in Cape Town. He had just left the gym, dressed in blue and white shirt, tight blue jeans and black brogues. He kept his composure throughout but his emphasis to decolonize the university was as sharp as it was two years ago. He looked nothing like the rabble-rouser portrayed in the newspapers.
“The process of bringing the poo to the statue, it was within political education in this country. People talk about townships and health issues at the university level, and yet these things are really happening. Us black people, we are there, we know these things first hand. People keep the poo buckets in their rooms at night, and in the morning take them to the pavement. And kids play with them, no one cares. I thought I might as well bring one to the university, as a way of saying there’s a problem there but at the same time addressing the racial problems at UCT,” says Maxwele.
At face value, Maxwele’s campaign can be simplified as only against Rhodes’ statue but the man insists there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“There are a lot of complicated issues involved in Rhodes Must Fall. Coming to the university as a rural African student, you are sort of told to leave who you are at the university’s entrance. There’s so much institutional and personal racism going on. Part of my protest was to exhibit white arrogance and black assimilation into the university system,” says Maxwele.
“On the question of curriculum, what is being taught and who is teaching it, and how it is being taught. There’s no way you are going to talk about the brutal killing of black people with what it deserves as a white person. UCT doesn’t recognize apartheid.”
Maxwele says black students and academics have accepted they must assimilate to survive. They fear they’ll be excluded and persecuted like he was.
“It is not easy to be honest to your cause. I have been suspended by the university for two years in 2015 and 2016,” he says.
In September last year, the anti-statue feeling spread to the University of Ghana where students and academics petitioned for the removal of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. The protesters claimed the proponent of non-violence was racist and the university must replace his statue with an African hero.
The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, unveiled the statue in June last year at the University of Ghana campus as a symbol of close ties between the two countries.
Gandhi, a native of India, spent 21 years in South Africa as a lawyer and civil rights activist. More than half a century after his assassination in India, like Cecil John Rhodes, Gandhi’s legacy divides the world.
Ashwin Desai, a professor of sociology in South Africa and co-author of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, wrote that Gandhi was never a saint, not even close.
“Some youngsters recently defaced Gandhi’s statue in Johannesburg for his perceived racism, while others demanded the defaming of Nelson Mandela, seen as a figure of excessive compromise who heralded disastrous economic policies…” says Desai.
The fervour and anger around statues grows. Many philosophers give reasons for this. The only certainty is if you put up a statue in Africa, be assured someone will want to tear it down.