In 2015, a University of Cape Town (UCT) student brought the world’s attention to an ignored reality that taints various cities across the globe: monuments that celebrate people of deplorable beliefs and practices. At the University of Cape Town, it was the statue of an imperialist and racist colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes. In the United States, there are various statues of slave owners. People step out of their houses daily and cross streets named after famous statesmen without doing a moral accounting of their achievements.
For example, Cecil John Rhodes is renowned for his charity work, but most people are not aware of the source of his wealth. The actions of Chumani Maxwele, the UCT student who began the #Rhodesmustfall campaign in Cape Town drew global attention to names and landmarks celebrated across the world which pay homage to morally corrupt individuals. Protests have been held all over the world and they persist. For example, a statue of King Leopold III was recently removed in Antwerp.
Likewise, Oxford has decided to dislodge the famous Cecil John Rhodes statue at Oriel college. With the current wave of protests for black equality and an end to systematic racism, is the dislodging of statues progressive? Does it improve on the issues currently occurring, or does it serve as a distraction from the bigger goal of real and pragmatic solutions?
In the clamour for equality and an end to systematic racism, the issue of statues has been brought back to the fore. It is important to note that the protestors are not asking for the erasure of history, the protestors are against the reverence and celebration of people who were pioneers of a system that exploited and discriminated against black people and other minority populations.
Diverting attention from the issues of legal reform in justice systems towards the dislodging of statues should not blind protestors and activists from the real change they seek. The dislodging of statues is of great symbolic value, it reflects a society that is aware of the atrocities of the past. However, symbolism will not solve the matters on the ground. Despite being pioneers of a morally distasteful tradition of racism, the individuals on the statues are not the policemen killing unarmed people of color, neither are they sitting in the chambers of power with the requisite authority to implement change.
The removal of statues should not take priority over the pursuit of real change. It is important to shun racist capitalists, but it is more important to attack the same people who are alive and keep such a diabolic tradition alive. The removal of statues can be saved for later after real reform by living people has been implemented. Defacing a statue of an individual who has been 6 feet under for over a century will not solve the prevailing atrocities and racial injustices. Protest groups should ask for real solutions that will bring about real change.
More energy and effort should be focused on legislative reform in the justice system and holding policemen to account. The Cecil John Rhodes statue was removed from UCT, but the real issues persist, for example, most of the economic wealth in South Africa is vested in the white minority. Also, the land redistribution issue has not been resolved and very few people of color can afford university tuition. These problems persist years after the dislodging of statues because the real issues are not being addressed.
The value of removing landmarks that represent pioneers of racially oppressive systems cannot be understated. However, this should not be the main priority and it should also not be used to dilute a movement that seeks pragmatic solutions for more tangible issues. Statues have been removed before, but the same problems persist to this day because the real problem is not in the name behind the statue.