Citizen.Speak.Amplify

Why I photographed these two cleaners at the foot of UCT’s Rhodes statue

“Some guy took a bucket of shit from the bathroom and chucked it on him.” "Ever done a job like this?" "Haha, no!"
“Some guy took a bucket of shit from the bathroom and chucked it on him.”
“Ever done a job like this?”
“Haha, no!”

This is a photograph of the two men who worked until 10.00pm on Monday night to clean the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) upper campus, after a group of protestors had dumped two septic tanks of sewage on the statue earlier that day.

The demonstrators were protesting against the presence of infrastructure on campus memorialising colonial figures, including this statue. I took this picture to post on a photography page that I run, called UCT Pictorial, where I photograph people who are on campus, and try to share their experiences at UCT. So far, 12,000 people have seen the image.

My intention in posting this picture was not to condemn or dismiss the protest, but rather to remind us of the complex nature of demonstration and the many people involved in and affected by actions taken in the name of activism. These two men are as much a part of the demonstration as the other actors. The way that it affected and involved them was worth sharing and taking into account when considering the issues at hand.

Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy is one that is difficult to reconcile with the values of a modern and transformative South Africa. Rhodes was an integral participant in southern African and British imperialism, and in many ways is the archetypal colonialist. Many of his policies and business ventures gave little consideration to the interests and livelihood of black South Africans, and caused oppression, suffering and displacement. Yet the presence of memorials such as this statue continue to commemorate him as a noble and valuable figure in our nation’s development. Is this appropriate?

UCT is widely considered to be the leading academic institution on the continent. The university’s transformation strategic plan mandates that it work to make the university more more representative, intellectually diverse, and focused on African perspectives. Surely having a statue honouring a man like Rhodes, at the foot of the campus’ great steps is at odds with these aspirations? Should we be challenging the way in which his legacy is remembered and honoured? I think so.

But the question this photo raises is how can it be done in a manner that is effective, yet respectful to all on campus – such as the men in this photograph – given the lack of change that has come from less radical forms of protest? Where do we go from here?

I posted this photograph with the hope that it would shift the perception of students who are ignorant or dismissive of this contentious and important issue. It is my hope that this contribution might spark their curiosity to learn about the history of colonial figures such as Rhodes, from a perspective outside of the narrow, traditional, white narrative, and consider how these memorials might make our public spaces unwelcoming. Hopefully this photo can contribute to the greater discussion and not be used to try to shut it down.

Nicholas Fitzhenry bio picNick Fitzhenry is an undergrad student at UCT specialising in economics and law. When he is not studying, he roams the campus with his camera, meeting and photographing the people who make up this diverse community. Follow the blog on Facebook or on Twitter.
9 Comments
  1. Duane says

    Interesting.

    But it be nice to know the workers’ names and what they thought about the protest and UCT in general.

    1. AssociateEd
      AssociateEd says

      you are absolutely right.

  2. Roger Verrall says

    Rhodes and others certainly do not fit today’s political correctness but neither does Julius Caesar and many other. However, Caesar’s armies left the start of good road networks in UK and Europe. Rhodes and others started many enterprises which have brought much good as well as some “holding back”. Surely we should be honouring the good they did – learning from what they did wrong – continuing to try to build upwards and onwards.
    Roger

  3. Mo Haarhoff says

    By all means let them delete all proof of colonialism, but they should remember that denying the holocaust is already rife and once no permanent reminders of our history remain, people worldwide will ask: Apartheid? What was that apart from a figment of your imagination?’ Frankly, anyone who doesn’t like the statue should find somewhere else to learn.

  4. Robert says

    I’m presuming that none of the UCT students who may qualify for Rhodes Scholarships to study overseas will take this up as a matter of principle?

    1. Allan B says

      i presume that the Rhodes Scholarship foundation and al the previous Rhodes Alumina graduates who donate funds to support the existence of the institution will by default feel they and their degree is being crapped upon so would now be seriously considering withdrawing these donations. A warning to all those protestors that Rhodes is/was an internationally recognized university degree and your actions will be judged in future. It is then and when your very own children want to study at tertiary level that the education value will come to the fore. So go ahead and burn break spoil destroy like all you who are now the born free class and don’t complain when nothing exists

  5. joana says

    I think those of you who are saying that the statues of imperialists and apartheid perpetrators need to be kept as part of history don’t know where history is kept.History should be kept in the museum.I am sure South Africa has one.Keeping statues up is celebratory and we should not celebrate them.We are grateful that the horror they caused brought some good but then thats it…

    1. Mmmm says

      Well, if you want to get rid of the statue, then you better demolish UCT as well, since he was the/one of the founders of the university, as well as Rhodes University.

  6. Clarien says

    Nice work, Nick.

    @Mo Haarhoff’s comment “Frankly, anyone who doesn’t like the statue should find somewhere else to learn.” – Isn’t that a bit harsh? Why should we find somewhere else to learn?

    What’s wrong with reevaluating which parts of our history we want to celebrate, and which parts we just want to remember (and hopefully learn from) without glorifying it?

    Part of our university’s aim, as far as I know, is to stimulate and nurture critical thinking.

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