The Death of the Monument

Imagine for a minute the ultimate national symbols—the Washington Monument, the Big Ben, the Taj Mahal—crumbling to the ground. This terrifying picture is likely the stuff movies are made of—a horrific natural disaster, or the looping image of an aerial-based terrorist attack. We can all imagine the memorial spaces that would emerge to commemorate the landmark and its rubble. A new, even more sacred, memorial or monument would quickly supplant the old. We see this memorialisation of traumatic national events regularly—the camps of Auschwitz preserved for all to see, the Robben Island prison cells that recall the ANC freedom fighters, the consecration of Ground Zero... the list goes on and on.

And yet, multicultural societies often struggle with this kind of history writing. The fixed nature of monuments and their intentional design—the fact that they are constructed to convey a particular story in a particular way—often means that such spaces are unable to reflect the dynamism or heterogeneity of historical experience. As more monuments are commissioned, financed, and chiseled, we are beginning to realise that those with political and social power are increasingly the ones who end up defining the terms of historical discussions. So, the question in these societies becomes: how can the powerless reclaim their history?

It is here that we can turn to a recent debate over a South African monument in honour of Cecil Rhodes. Designed by the British artist Marion Walgate, the statue was placed in the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus in 1934. Cecil Rhodes was right at the centre of the European colonisation of Southern Africa, and despite his large donation of land for the UCT campus, he had already amassed an enormous amount of wealth, land, and power on the backs and graves of many South Africans.

This statue represents a core problem with monument: they can never escape the spatial and temporal reality of their construction. Any narrative of the Rhodes effigy remains leashed to the legacy of the figure and the society that existed during the statue's construction—a time when Apartheid was a reality, though not yet the law. The statues of other historical figures are no different. Spaces dedicated to the pioneers of colonisation—from Christopher Columbus to King Leopold—recall an era that dismissed the conditions of exploitation, slavery, and genocide. As a result, such monuments are merely reflections of prior historical cultures, rather than accurate historical depictions.

Discussing UCT's heritage and symbolism, students showed how this artefact celebrates figures of white supremacy and silences the voices of the non-whites. When Ramabina Mahapa, one of the many students leading the Rhodes Must Fall movement, asks "who are the keepers of your memory?", we begin to see how this monument inflicts historical violence on the memories of the non-white South Africans, haunting the psyches of those still alive.

Monuments clearly present multicultural nations with a historical problem, yet they still carry a significant social and cultural cachet among populations—an almost sacrosanct importance. Ultimately, because of this cultural and social investment in monuments and the legitimacy we endow them with in their telling of our history, memorial spaces, like the statue of Cecil Rhodes, provide valuable venues for collective defiance and the reclamation of history.

However, it is not the construction of monuments dedicated to defiance that endows them with social resonance. Often historically stubborn, such memorials are unable to account for the dynamism of historical change. Spaces like the District Six Museum in Cape Town, dedicated to those who resisted Apartheid and protested against forced removals, struggle to explicate contemporary concerns about slum expansion, or violence against migrant workers.

Instead, it is the intentional tearing down of the monument that helps topple its ideology. Precisely at the moment of its absence, the monument is at its most meaningful. In the newly emptied space, there is no narrator to maintain historical meaning, or preserve the figures of the past. Participants can therefore articulate their own meaning about the space, and claim it as a monument of their own.

This is precisely what has now begun to happen with the statue of Rhodes. When the statue was attacked and defaced, the administration authorised its removal. The statue’s empty slot allows us to see how the history written into the spaces around us determines our political, social, and cultural reality. In the death of the monument, we thus find the life of defiance.

Image by Edward Linley Sambourne, The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

Credit: Punch and Exploring History 1400-1900: An anthology of primary sources, p. 401 by Rachel C. Gibbons