While researching for, and editing Movement Cape Town (The City, 2015), I heard from local residents as they expressed their sense of under-representation. Black and brown residents of the city felt invisible, uninvited and unacknowledged. Paradoxically, in those instances when they weren’t ignored, they were exoticised – or made ‘hyper-visible’ – singled out on the basis of difference. Considering that this group of people constitutes 84,3% of Cape Town’s population it is alarming that the majority of the city’s residents attest to feeling invisible or unrepresented. That such oppression is routinely shrugged off or deemed normal signals an urgent need to explore the generative potential in the hybrid aspects of contemporary life in Cape Town.
This led me to my curiosity and research on the representation of cultural iconography in the public life of the city. I outlined a chapter for the Movement Cape Town book, titled the ‘Movement of Objects’. As part of this topic, I wished to explore ‘Immovable Objects’ with reference to the colonial statues and memorials that dot Cape Town’s cityscape. I wished to explore the relevance of these memorials with regards to South Africa’s long historical narrative, our democracy and the lives of everyday people.
I moved through the city and wondered if all of Cape Town’s cultures were regarded and commemorated equally.
I moved through the city and wondered if all of Cape Town’s cultures were regarded and commemorated equally. I was curious about the activism of the art collective, Tokolos Stencil, that had stencilled ‘Disown this heritage’ on the statue of Jan Smuts. Then, on 9 April 2015, the immovable moved and the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes fell at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Rhodes once stated, as cited in the UCT Varsity newspaper in 1967, that he would build UCT ‘Out of the Kafirs’ stomach’ and so it seemed fitting that the movement’s founder Chumani Maxwele, as an initial spark for the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, hurled a bucket of faeces at the statue of Rhodes. This was a pivotal moment for social activism in South Africa and UCT in particular. For many young black people in South Africa it was a time of visibility and voice. Not on the streets fighting for services, but on an important academic campus finding a language to engage with white power and alienation. For Mathe, ‘The movement simply wanted to disrupt white, supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative ableism… it gave members of the movement the language with which to articulate the campus experience. It gave intellectual “self defence” classes to marginalized people on campus.
‘Finally it provided a space in which to engage white power and alienation. How do you reconcile the fact that you associate with whiteness and assimilate with it and the only way of sustainably living is to appease it?’
For me, the juxtaposition of the brutal first step of the movement (throwing of faeces) alongside an intellectual understanding and engagement revealed the duality and complexity of the peoples represented in the movement.
This is poignantly captured in Sethembile Msezane’s artwork titled ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell, where she states that the day Rhodes fell is a ‘moment that captures a process of identity construction, self-assertion and reclamation of space within an African locale that continues to be in flux.’