The 81-year-old statue memorialized a British colonizer of Africa, but for many also symbolized South Africa’s harsh history of oppression.
On Thursday evening, a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was hoisted from its plinth at the University of Cape Town (UCT), sealing a round of protests against institutional racism that started with a bucket of human excrement exactly one month earlier, on March 9.
Demonstrators surged forward to attack the bronze sculpture as it was lowered onto a truck, draping it in chains and striking it with their fists. Rhodes was doused in fake blood. His face was smothered in plastic. Dancing bodies crowded around him as the truck driver pulled away.
The statue’s removal signals a small victory for protestors agitating for further change in South Africa, where issues of race are still divisive more than two decades after the end of apartheid. To them, monuments celebrating former oppressors—Rhodes, a 19th-century mining magnate and fervid imperialist, introduced policies that impoverished millions of black families—are symbols of entrenched institutional racism and white power. By challenging these symbols, the protestors have reopened debates about privilege and transformation, drawing attention to the frustrations experienced by people of color at Africa’s top-ranked university.
Thursday’s events were set in motion a month ago when Chumani Maxwele, a 30-year-old political science student, flung feces at the Rhodes statue, which has occupied a prominent position in the middle of campus since being erected in 1934. “Seeing the statue every day pained me; it made me very angry,” Maxwele said. “Rhodes dispossessed and killed black people. His footprints are all over our country.”
Three days later, following a heated gathering outside the univeristy’s main hall, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement was formed as a student, staff, and worker collective. Within a week the group’s Facebook page had more than 2,000 followers and was functioning as a hub of protest and discussion. On March 20, members of the group occupied the university’s administrative building and refused to leave until their demands were met.
“This movement is not just concerned with the removal of a statue,” they wrote in a widely publicized mission statement. “Its removal will not mark the end but the beginning of the long overdue process of decolonizing this university.”
Besides calling for the removal of offensive statues and plaques on campus, the movement insisted on increased financial support for black students, greater representation of black academic staff—UCT has just five black South African senior professors—and the adoption of pro-worker policies.
They rejected unequivocally the university’s call for dialogue on these issues, accusing management of “silencing black rage.”
On April 8, at the end of a meeting disrupted by students, UCT’s council ruled that the statue would be removed the following day.
“This is the biggest day in the history of this university,” said one third-year student as he jostled to watch the spectacle among thousands of other onlookers.
“As a black man, I never used to think about this statue, but now I do,” added his friend. Both students asked not to be named.
At 5:40 p.m. a Rhodes Must Fall representative read a statement calling for the destruction of systematic oppression based on “any power relations of difference.” The mechanical crane was engaged. There was a countdown.
And then the statue was gone.