On 9th April 2015, Rhodes fell. One month previously students at the University of Cape Town had begun a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from their campus. The campaign was called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and their mission statement said that the statue glorified a man who was “racist, imperialist, colonialist and misogynist”. A key figure in colonial history, he aggressively annexed land in South Africa to further his ideology; “the bringing of the whole world under British rule…making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire”. Students believed that its removal would begin the “decolonisation of the university”. On April 8th, the university council accepted Rhodes Must Fall’s demands and the following day, a crane heaved the statue off the plinth it had rested on for 80 years, surrounded by a throng of jubilant students, cheering and dancing.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa marks the beginning of a trend in global politics. Statues have become a battleground for culture wars. From the United States to South Korea, debates about historical legacy and modern cultural identity have raged around these figures of iron and
From South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement came to Oxford. Students campaigned for the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College to be taken down. Sneering out across the High Street onto University Church, the statue of Rhodes stood there due because of an endowment he had left the college in his will. The movement attracted national media attention but was ultimately unsuccessful. On 29th January 2016, Oriel announced that the statue would remain, after college donors had threatened to withdraw £100 million of funding.
Rhodes Must Fall also emerged across the Atlantic at Harvard University, in the form of the Royall Must Fall movement, which took off in autumn 2015. The campaign called for changing the Harvard Law School shield, which depicted the coat of arms of Isaac Royall Jr, who had made his fortune in the slave trade and owned multiple plantations. The shield was retired 6 months later.
Meanwhile, the same month that the Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa, Ukraine initiated a formal process of decommunisation, which led to the destruction of 1,300 Lenin statues by the following year. One of these monuments in Edessa was converted into a Darth Vader statue.
Then in June 2015, the murder of 9 African Americans in a church in Charleston by a white supremacist prompted soul-searching in the United States over its confederate history. Since the attack, over 100 statues of monuments to confederate generals, who fought the Civil War to maintain slavery, have been taken down.
These removals outraged many from the American south who claimed that the movement to topple confederate statues threatened their cultural heritage. In August 2017, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in droves for a “Unite the Right” rally that tried to prevent a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from being taken down. Violence erupted between the white supremacists and counter-protestors, leading to 3 deaths and a state of emergency being called. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke said, “I believe that today, in Charlottesville…is the first step towards taking America back.”
Charlottesville prompted mayors in Durham, Baltimore and Lexington to remove confederate monuments from their towns within a week. Donald Trump responded by tweeting, “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues”. Confederate generals are obviously contentious figures, however it may be more surprising to hear that more recently protestors have toppled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The University of Ghana took action against a statue of the Indian civil rights activist in December 2018, after 1,000 students signed a petition calling for its removal. Gandhi is a controversial figure, particularly in Ghana because of his racist views about Africans: he considered them “inferior” to Indians.
Then, just weeks ago on 1st February 2019, South Korean activists assembled around a bronze statue of a “comfort woman” outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest Japan’s failure to apologise for forcing South Korean women to work as sex slaves in military brothels during World War Two. Japan had previously withdrawn its ambassador to South Korea over the installation of the statue.
While debates about controversial statues have gained huge prominence within these countries, it is rarely recognised as an international phenomenon. The media, caught up in these national debates have failed to explain that these conflicts over statues are part of a global process of reckoning with our history in the 21st Century. But that begs the question, why are statues proving the focal point for these reflections on national identity and history? Why have these movements suddenly emerged across the world in the last few years?
Statues are symbolically important; physical representations of a nation’s values. They populate our urban landscape with reminders of who we are, and glorify the heroes of our common histories. Statues are powerful tools for propaganda; looming over us, the figures they show are idealised and immortal. Yet this immortality means that statues linger in our streets long after the ideology they represent has gone. Cultural identity is constantly evolving and statues become artefacts of outdated attitudes. Does Cecil Rhodes belong on the streets of post-apartheid South Africa? Does the Statue of Liberty, with its inscription “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” belong in a country whose government is locking children in cages at the border and whose president wants to build a wall to keep these huddled masses out?
Even if they represent outdated attitudes, statues still maintain their psychological impact. Vann R. Newkirk II wrote of the experience of being an African American growing up around confederate statues in the South; “I lived in occupied territory. I did not belong in the society represented by the statues, even though my ancestors had tilled the land for centuries.” A student at the University of Ghana said after the Gandhi statue was removed, “it’s a massive win for all Ghanaians because it was constantly reminding us how inferior we are”.
As a symbolic representation of the ruling ideology, pulling statues down can constitute a powerful message of overturning an existing order. The Hungarian Revolution against Soviet rule began in October 1956 with demonstrators toppling a 30-foot statue of Stalin. Victory in the Battle of Baghdad after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was celebrated by the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square. That is why statues are at the focus of these culture wars: they are symbolic of overcoming an old order. Rhodes Must Fall had goals beyond Rhodes falling, with students in both Cape Town and Oxford seeking to decolonise education by combating institutional prejudice and widening the scope of humanities syllabuses. The statue of Rhodes in a privileged position in both universities symbolised the hegemonic prejudice that they were trying to combat, and the statue’s removal in Cape Town represents a significant symbolic victory.
Yet colonial South Africa and confederate America fell by the historical wayside a long time ago, so why are Cecil Rhodes and Robert E. Lee falling today? The campaigns across the world since 2015 all have had an urgency to them that seems odd considering it was two decades since the end of apartheid and Soviet rule of Ukraine, and even longer since the end of World War Two, the fall of the British Empire and Confederate America.
This urgency is because these debates are not over ideologies that have been forgotten and therefore look out of place.The problem is that these ideologies are still widespread.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement did not celebrate the end of racism in South Africa, but dealt a symbolic blow to the institutional racism that has persisted to the present day. In Oxford, Rhodes doesn’t represent colonial privilege that has long since faded, but rather access problems and prejudice that still plague our admissions process. Confederate statues are being taken down in America because the white supremacist ideology they represent is experiencing a revival in mainstream politics. Ukraine’s decision to take down statues of Lenin came after Russia’s annex of Crimea and fears of Russia’s influence extending further into Ukraine. These culture wars are fighting over the present, not the past.
If this trend continues and our cities are depopulated, as more statues are deemed problematic across the globe, the next question we must ask is “what do you do with these problematic statues?”. A million articles have been written debating whether or not we should remove statues or leave them where they are, and I will not enter that debate here. Any readers interested can go to the Oxford Union YouTube account, and watch the ‘Must Rhodes Fall?’ debate.
Instead, I would like to present the options one is faced with if they believe action should be taken. One obvious solution is that you could destroy them. I do not doubt that slamming a sledgehammer into a lump of stone that has stood oppressively over you for your whole life feels cathartic. If a statue’s toppling represents a rejection of a past ideology, that rejection would surely be more emphatic if the statue were destroyed.
However, as we have established, the urgency for these campaigns is due to the fact that these poisonous legacies have endured. Destroying these statues prevents a valuable opportunity to educate future generations about these legacies in order to correct the arc of history. As journalist Radley Balko put it, “we shouldn’t try to erase the past, but we should strive to provide it with the proper context.”
This context can take many different forms. Statues can be taken down and put into museums, where an explanation of its providence can be provided. Alternatively, one can assemble a large group of controversial monuments in one public space, as Moscow’s Fallen Monument Park and Budapest’s Memento Park do with the city’s Soviet statues, and as Delhi’s Coronation Park does with its British imperial statues. In Delhi, the statues are removed from their plinths, no longer allowed the grandeur of their original design. Both of these options remove the statues from spaces that glorify them, while serving the purpose of public education.
One could even keep the statues up, but install a prominent plaque to re-contextualise them. An example of this can be found in Oxford. The All Souls Codrington Library was endowed by Christopher Codrington, whose fortune was obtained through sugar plantations in the West Indies. Opening the gate off Radcliffe Square into All Souls today you are immediately faced with a large plaque commemorating “those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies”. If you then enter the library you will come across a marble statue of Codrington in Roman imperial dress. With this context, some would argue that the statue doesn’t glorify him but instead makes him look like a slightly absurd figure, playing dress up and picturing his own celebrated legacy, which today rightly lies in ruins.
Finally, rather than solely focus on removing the statues from our cities, we should look to reimagine our urban landscape and install new statues to better represent the values of our current society. In 2016, fewer than one in five listed statues in the UK depict women, and many that did were either anonymous and sexualised or of Queen Victoria. However, change is taking place. December 2018 saw statues of suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney installed in their hometowns of Manchester and Oldham respectively. During the same month, while announcing the removal of a statue of racist gynaecologist J. Marion Sims from Central Park, New York ’s mayor announced that a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American women to serve in congress would be erected in Brooklyn.
We should be careful to preserve memory of our problematic past in public consciousness, albeit not glorified on the plinths where these statues currently stand. Simultaneously, we must erect new statues that better represent our values. If we do, the oppressive psychological effect of the current statues would be transformed into one that is inclusive and inspiring. New generations would be unburdened of our society’s sinister historical legacies, but wary to stamp out the remnants of these legacies that persevere. If Rhodes does fall, we must be careful to bring the ideologies he represented crashing down with him.