Several activist groups in Cape Town have threatened to dismantle statues of colonial figures if the South African government does not act to remove them. This follows a wave of protest in the United States and Europe in recent weeks, during which statues memorialising figures involved in slavery and colonialism have been removed.
This week, the Black People’s National Crisis Committee (BPNCC) said it would intensify protest if activists are not listened to. On Youth Day, the group held a protest in front of Parliament, calling for the Louis Botha statue to be taken down.
“There is a cognitive battle around the monuments in South Africa, which continue to demonstrate the power relations between the master and the slave, the exploiter and the exploited, the oppressor and the oppressed. South African iconography to us is not only colonial, but it reinforces the idea that a foreign invader can continue having a conquered society represented in their own image,” the group said.
Several statues and public memorials are in activists’ crosshairs, including the figure of Botha, a statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town’s Company Gardens, Rhodes Memorial, and a statue of Jan van Riebeek and his wife Maria in Cape Town’s Adderley Street.
BPNCC member Wandile Kasibe, who was part of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, said the campaign to remove the figures, which was lit in 2015, has now been reignited.
“These symbols inflict psychological violence on the minds of people whose ancestors were murdered by people who are being glorified by statues,” said Kasibe, who is a PhD candidate in history and museum curatorship.
He questions whether there is political will to remove colonial statues, claiming their demands have not been acknowledged by the government in the past five years.
In 2015, activist Sulyman Stellenboom campaigned to draw awareness to colonial and apartheid-era statues around the Cape Town central business district. The same year students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) successfully lobbied for the statue of one of the institution’s major benefactors — Cecil John Rhodes — to be removed from campus.
The 57-year-old was among those arrested during the Rhodes Must Fall protests in the weeks before the removal of the statue from the heart of the university’s upper campus.
Stellenboom — who tied placards and chains to statues of the prime minister of the Union of South Africa Botha, his successor Jan Smuts, and Van Riebeeck — hopes the government will act more decisively on the role of the relics in post-apartheid South Africa. Since then, the Van Riebeeck and Botha statues have been defaced numerous times.
“I still want those things removed. It’s a curse on our nation. Even the way Rhodes is sitting at Rhodes memorial, he’s looking out over the Western Cape, laughing. He and Jan van Riebeeck were not good people,” Stellenboom said.
The South African government, meanwhile, denies it has not been responsive to issues about statues.
At the time of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said his department would embark on “consultative community engagements” to find answers to the role of colonial statues and memorials.
Replying to questions from the Mail & Guardian, the department of sports, arts, and culture said one of the recommendations made during consultations was that statues, monuments and symbols “not aligned to the values of the Constitution should not occupy public spaces and should be moved to theme parks”.
In a statement this week, Mthethwa said that, since 1994, several statues and memorials had already been removed or placed in less prominent public spaces.
Also this week, Oriel College at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom voted to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.