29 May 2018 | Story Rulanzen Martin | Photo Charl Devenish
Africa Day Memorial Lecture explores future of statues
From the left are: Dr Stephanie Cawood, Acting Director of the CGAS; Prof Heidi Hudson, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities; Prof Prakash Naidoo, Vice-Rector: Operations; and Dr Rahul Rao.

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Drawing from different international perspectives on the topic of historical statues, the importance of debate surrounding the future of these symbols resounded at the 10th Annual Africa Day Memorial Lecture. 

The lecture was hosted on 23 May 2018 by the newly renamed Centre for Gender and Africa Studies and was presented by Dr Rahul Rao from the SOAS University of London, where he is a senior lecturer in Politics. 

“I am very excited about my trip to South Africa and to be here among you. This is my first trip to South Africa, and it is very exciting and also a little bit emotional for me, particularly because I got my first passport in 1984 when I was six years old, and it said – valid for travel to all countries except the Republic of South Africa. You know why that was the case.”

“I salute all of you for the transformation that has been affected in this country, and I think Africa Day is the perfect occasion to celebrate the transformation.”  

Student activism through #MustFall movements
“I first heard in March 2015 that students from the University of Cape Town have begun demonstrating to take down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and have it removed from their campus, and a bit later, students from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom followed suit. At first, I felt some guilt having been a Rhodes Scholar from 2001 to 2004, because you must embody the values of Cecil John Rhodes,” Dr Rao said.

“I have watched from afar the events that have taken place here, for example, the #RhodesMustFall Movement, and the reverberation of these events in other places; I mean, the way these events travel,” he said.

Students in Cape Town, Oxford, and Bloemfontein are doing something concrete and collective to dismantle the legacy of colonialism and Apartheid. “I feel connected to these events, even if I am far away.”

International perspective on historical statues
In both SA and the UK, the call for iconography decolonisation was accompanied and soon overtaken by different accounts. It also gives a broader and different perspective on how statues can be used to achieve racial or social dominance. 

One of the many examples he used, was the ambush against Confederate Statues in the American South. These statues are symbols of upholding a white supremacist ideology in the South. The Confederate States of America was the predecessor to the current United States of America.

He also spoke about the temporalities of statues, the decolonisation and recolonisation, as well as the aesthetics of statues, among other things. “Statues don't need permission to thrust itself upon us. They demand attention,” Dr Rao said. This is because statues are placed in the centre of public spaces but are also vulnerable and exposed. 

He left the audience with some questions on what to do with statues that are taken down, and who to erect new statues for.

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