Permanent removal of UCT Rhodes Statue gets green light

Cape Town - The University of Cape Town’s application to permanently remove its much-talked about Cecil John Rhodes statue was approved on Monday.

The application was tabled before Heritage Western Cape’s (HWC) Built Environment and Landscape Committee, following a heritage statement, supplementary report and period of public consultation.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement had seen the bronze statue’s removal as the first step toward the decolonisation of the university.

The university had initially supported the demolition of the full plinth and the reinstatement of the steps.

UCT deputy vice-chancellor Professor Sandra Klopper told the committee on Monday that students had since “spontaneously reclaimed” the space.

She said the university decided to remain open to retaining the lower plinth and this was “directly influenced by student representation”.

Physical damage

HWC’s decision on Monday comes 18 months after the statue was temporarily lifted off its plinth to cheers and singing by hundreds of students in April 2015.

Students belted the statue, beat it with a wooden beam and pelted it with paint and rubbish as it was spirited away on a flat-bed truck to a secret location.

It remained there with no trace of physical damage but still marked with areas of mostly water-based spray paint graffiti.

Student leader Chumani Maxwele had first ignited the transformation debate the month before when he flung faeces at the statue on upper campus in March 2015.

The temporary removal, which caught the public’s imagination, had followed nearly a month of protests, sit-ins and meetings.

Committee chair Sarah Winter said it was the first time that HWC had had to deal with an issue of such symbolic significance.

At the heart of discussions by committee members were the removal as a catalyst for change and the importance of keeping the door of engagement open.

“Allowing it to be owned by students is psychologically incredibly important,” Klopper appealed to members.

“There is something about the heightened space. That slight elevation is part of what makes the performative space so valuable because it stands out above road level. It means you are very visible whatever you are doing.”

Conditions

During discussions, HWC CEO Mxolisi Dlamuka said South Africa was in its current space because of a negotiated settlement, not because of a revolution.

Referring to the statue application, he said: “We are here… because victims have said this is a symbol of pain.”

The committee’s decision, which is subject to a 14-day appeal period, contained a number of conditions.

It said the future of the plinth and the interpretation of the space would be resolved with a separate application in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act, and following ongoing discussion with the university community.

The statue should continue to be stored and safeguarded. Any conservation work to the statue was subject to the separate application.

The future location of the statue was also subject to Heritage Western Cape’s (HWC) approval.

Klopper told the committee it was very important that the university not be kept to a timeline on this process.