Toppling Statues, Challenging Silences and Systemic Oppression: Protest as an opportunity to critically reflect History

by Camilla Salim Wagner


(image by Rhodes Must Fall)


The statue was therefore the natural starting point of this movement. Its removal will not mark the end but the beginning of the long overdue process of decolonising this university.” (Rhodes Must Fall 2015)


We seek to challenge the structures of knowledge production that continue to mould a colonial mindset that dominates our present.” (Rhodes Must Fall Oxford 2015)


Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) is a protest movement originated in 2015 in Cape Town University, which demanded the removal of a statue honouring Cecil Rhodes from campus, as well as the decolonization of the university (Hall 2015). The protests, initially focussed on the statue, evolved to include a denunciation of the discriminatory environment of the Cape Town University (Rhodes Must Fall 2015). Despite the broad anti-racist, institutional character it assumed, the  mission statement of the movement emphasizes that the statue “has great symbolic power – it is a glorifying monument to a man who was undeniably a racist, imperialist, colonialist, and misogynist”, and as an embodiment of the discrimination of people of colour at the university is “the natural starting point of this movement” (Rhodes Must Fall 2015). The protests quickly gained momentum and generated intense debates over free-speech in South Africa, and a few weeks later the statue was removed (BBC News 2015).

Students in Oxford University in England were inspired by it and raised similar demands regarding the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College. The Oxford movement caused enormous controversy in the British media, with its opponents arguing the statue is an emblem of the university’s traditions of free speech and uncensored thinking (Chaudhuri 2016). The protests faced more resistance in Oxford, especially because of the strong influence of the Rhodes Trust, and the statue stayed. The #RhodesMustFall eventually faded into the background, until it was recently revived in connection to the Black Lives Matter Protests (Mathur 2020), which were sparked by the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of the US-American police in May of 2020. Black Lives Matter protests initially focussed on police brutality in the USA, but quickly broadened in scope to denounce systemic racism and spread to other parts of the world. The above are only two examples, but  the question of removing specific statues is widely controversial elsewhere too, as it is with Confederate symbols in the USA (Upton 2017) or colonial statues in Barbados (Drayton 2019).

Starting from the activists’ demands and claims regarding the violent character of some statues, I discuss howstatues are connected to systemic oppression and the role silence plays in that dynamic, as well as the relevance of the act of taking those symbols down. Rather than directly engaging with the different arguments of opponents and defenders of specific statues, I approach the topic with a theoretically informed perspective, reflecting not only about the statues but how we, as Western societies, understand our History. Besides the meanings and implications of who is (and isn’t) represented by statues, I question the power relations shaping our narratives of history and their political and social implications. Adopting a theoretical framework based on Depelchin’s (2004) discussions of history, imperialism and silence, I defend the thesis that we need to critically re-evaluate who we honour with statues, as well as our understanding and methodologic approach to History. My examples will, inevitably, be related to Rhodes, UK colonialism and British society, but the theoretical framework could be applied to any context.

The first questions I pose are why statues matter, how they are connected to power and to our conceptions of history. The controversies around the toppling of statues are primarily concerned with this question and I engage with arguments from both sides in the discussion. I also introduce different theoretical perspectives to argue that statues are instruments of power, identity and narrative construction. Then I introduce some central aspects of Depelchin’s ideas on the topic of silences as oppression. These constitute the basis for my subsequent reflections on the importance of critically reflecting statues and our History. Interpreting the protests as opportunities to reflect our heritage and to set higher standards for public ethics, academics and our cultural narratives. I propose that we use the momentum of the protests to promote a critical and intersectional approach to History and reflect our societal narratives, our education, and our scientific practices.


I.              Why statues matter

“First, that statues are never merely symbolic, which is also to say that there is nothing mere about symbolism.” (Rao 2016)


a.    Statues matter? Rhodes Must Fall and its opponents


Rhodes Must Fall, and various other movements demand the removal of some statues which, according to the protesters, represent values people whose actions are not worthy of being commemorated and honoured. They question the legacy of the people being acknowledged and the symbolic, contextual and social meanings of the statues. In the case of the Rhodes statue in Cape Town University, the students pointed out his involvement in the brutal colonization of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), as well as his role in establishing the foundations of the South African apartheid.

The RMF movement demands various policies be introduced to correct the systemic violence and discrimination against people of colour in the context of the university, which includes taking down the statue celebrating one of the founders of the institutional discrimination regime of apartheid. They also demand action to increase the diversity of the lecturers, adapt the admission process to account for disadvantages and improve the financial aid system, among others (Rhodes Must Fall 2015). Additionally, the movement explicitly adopts an intersectional approach recognising the existence of multiple factors defining the oppression experienced. They acknowledge this and seek to “inform our organising so that we do not silence groups among us, and so that no one should have to choose between their struggles”(Rhodes Must Fall 2015).

With regards to the statue itself, the protesters argue that:

The statue has great symbolic power – it is a glorifying monument to a man who was undeniably a racist, imperialist, colonialist, and misogynist. It stands at the centre of what supposedly is the ‘greatest university in Africa’. This presence, which represents South Africa’s history of dispossession and exploitation of black people, is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff (Rhodes Must Fall 2015).

The protest movement is founded on the belief that statues are more than simply decorations, they have context and meaning. Therefore, uncritically commemorating Rhodes is also reaffirming his value and legacy, erasing and minimizing the long-lasting consequences of his actions.

The Rhodes protests were met with much opposition and controversy, both in South Africa and in the UK. Most of the opposition was not based on a defence of Rhodes’ legacy or his (racist) views, rather it focussed on defending history and heritage. The movement was criticised for anachronically judging Rhodes by modern standards (Lemon 2016, 218), for trying to rewrite history to impose ‘political correctness’, which would characterise censorship and authoritarian action (Lemon 2016; Helo 2020, 125, 128, 142), for being extreme, similar to terrorists destroying archaeological sites (Lemon 2016, 218), or unreasonable, generating questions like “where would such destruction end?” (Lowry 2016).

However, the most common criticism present in the media was that RMF was disrespecting freedom of speech and, in Oxford, the centuries long tradition of accommodating (intellectual) difference (Lowry 2016, 330). Even some supporters of decolonializing institutions were critical of RMF, arguing that the statue was secondary compared to more important questions and therefore should not be the main focus (Chaudhuri 2016).

It is very clear that most critics either focus on aspects essentially unrelated to the statue or even the broader goal of decolonization. They see taking it down as a secondary goal at best. The protesters, however, emphasize that “statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values” (Rhodes Must Fall Oxford 2015) and have “great symbolic power” (Rhodes Must Fall 2015). The question of how relevant statues are is thus central in the debate.


b.    Statues as instruments of power, identity and narrative construction


One important consideration to be made is that most of the criticism against these anti-colonial protests is very clearly reactionary and comes from the perspective of privilege, especially racial privilege. Conservative media, such as the British Daily Telegraph, were strongly critical of RMF, describing “the destruction of statues in South Africa in April 2015 as ‘vandalism’” (Drayton 2019, 654–55). However, the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003 was hailed by the newspaper “as the symbol of liberation and the toppling of despotism” (Drayton 2019, 654–55).[1] It is important to recognise where the criticism comes from, which discourses are being mobilized and which power dynamics exist, which is why it is valuable to reflect the role statues play in maintaining and articulating discourses, narratives and power structures. Understanding how statues reaffirm our collective values and shape our perception of identity and history allows us to better grasp their relevance.

Statues are visual symbols, contextualized by their time of construction, by who they represent and by their presence in civic spaces (Upton 2017). Their (somewhat) permanent and material character generates a sense of stability, anchoring and affirming values (Jasper 2019, 123), which is why they “tend to solidify the past into and onto the representations of an individual” (Jasper 2019, 122).  Statues are a space to engage with the past which “encourage a particular type of interaction from the viewer, encouraging all to look upon them with reverence” (Jasper 2019, 122–23). Statues occupy a physical space, but also function as claims over space in a socio-political context (Rao 2016).

Portraying someone in a statue and placing it at a central location sends a message. One of the significant functions it can serve is to symbolize the social collective, demarcating who is included and who is excluded from the social group:

On the one hand, memorials serve to symbolize a shared heritage or experience. The mere existence of a commemorative statue is meant to trigger feelings of attachment, connection and pride […]. On the other hand, memorials are sites where conflicts around defining legitimate membership in the social collective takes place. Debates about which statues are placed where, whether certain images should be included or removed from extant statues are ways of demarcating the boundaries of the social collective. (Jasper 2019, 117)

This symbolic demarcation of the collective makes commemorative political symbols like flags, statues or the naming of places into powerful instruments for nation building (Aldich 2012). Such practices of cultural production constitute memory work, facilitating the emergence of a new community identity (Rao 2016). They are sources for producing knowledge about the past, with the advantage that the “space between source and ‘truth’ is elided ; the truth of the past is constructed as part of the image” (Jasper 2019, 120). Unlike textual sources, statues require less interpretation and analysis. They (re-)affirm what the observer knows about history, while “providing a sense to the viewer of how they are to incorporate what is represented into their understanding of self within a shared social horizon” (Jasper 2019, 120).

The construction of statues, monuments and mausoleums is common in newly independent states and marks “an effort to mark the cityscape, popular consciousness and the national heritage with dramatic […] symbols of anti-colonialism and independence” (Aldich 2012).  It commemorates the nobility of the cause, transforms soldiers into heroes and martyrs and more broadly, helps construct the narrative of national identity and history.  “Statues were an immediate and apparently unmediated way of communicating political values to a people who might be wavering in political loyalties” (Cohen 1989, 495), they help create imagined communities through shared civic symbolism. An historic example of how this can serve political purposes is the destruction of statues from the old regime after the French Revolution, removing the symbols of the old order and asserting the new (Cohen 1989, 512).

Having shared narratives strengthens identities and the feeling of belonging to the nation. Thus, creating a cohesive narrative of the past and history of a nation is a difficult but essential task for any state. Museums, commemorative landmarks and statues are powerful tools for such memory politics and “[t]hey have always been related to the exercise of ‘power’ in another sense—the symbolic power to order knowledge, to rank, classify and arrange, and thus to give meaning to objects and things through the imposition of interpretative schemas, scholarship and the authority of connoisseurship” (Hall 2005, 22). Statues are instruments for producing collective discourses and identities, as well as constructing the imagined collective of the nation (Hall 2005, 22). As such, they are a part of what Foucault calls dispositif, or instruments of power and governmentality, (re-)defining fields of knowledge and truth[2].

Statues are not history per se (Tunzelmann 2016), they are symbols, “public monuments point[ing] to some aspect of history that the public […] considers worthy of commemoration and they interpret that aspect of history from a particular point of view” (Upton 2017). They are inherently politic and shaped by the interests and aesthetics of those holding power at the time. Thus, framing the toppling of statues as ‘destroying history’ is inevitably connected to a defence of the point of view it represents.

Given the deep inequalities shaping our world, statues also become instruments of oppression and violence. Statues represent values and unite communities, but they can also exclude and silence by omitting, by leaving certain people and events out of mainstream narratives, by disproportionately representing, and/or by erasing the violent actions of relevant actors (as is the case with Rhodes). Feldman describes the violent character of omission, which “legitimizes the status quo by writing out the violent interdependencies upon which it is contingent” (cited in Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 35–36). It is a form of reiterative violence, legitimizing the existing inequalities by consistently minimizing the violence of colonial rule, negating the crimes of many ‘national heroes’ in Western societies and generally writing Black and colonial pain out of history.

Statues might be “only” symbols, but that does not, by far, make them irrelevant. And in the context of the longlasting consequences of colonialism and continuing oppression, it is fundamental to ask: “Who needs statues and who does not? Who occupies space to the exclusion of whom? Who dominates the ‘public’ sphere […]?” (Rao 2016).


II.            Silence as oppression


“Silence, we hold, is a socially constructed space in which and about which subjects and words normally used in everyday life are not spoken.” (Ben-Ze’ev, Ginio, and Winter 2010, 4)


To fully understand why questions of representativity matter, we must understand the wider context of systemic racism and imperialism, as well as the violence behind omission.   Omission is a central aspect for representativity, because it is its opposite: What is omitted remains in the realm of silence, of the unsay-able and non-represented. Goodrich and Bombardella (2016) propose that omission is one of the facets of colonial violence, drawing from the theoretical work of Mbembe (2001) on the legitimation of colonial rule. Furthermore, I introduce the work of Depelchin (2004), which focusses specifically on the silences in African History from a historiographical and methodological standpoint.

It is impossible to understand the global context and power distribution without considering the colonial heritage it was built upon. Which power structures and legitimacy discourses persist, is the topic of Achille Mbembe’s book “On the Postcolony” (2001).[3] Mbembe specifies the three types of violence behind colonial sovereignty: the violence of conquest, the violence of (political) legitimation of this conquest and the reiterative violence of daily subordination (Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 35–36). In 2020, the direct violence of conquest might not be a reality anymore, but our global system was built upon the hierarchical basis of it and the legitimation of such domination remains violent. The deep economic inequality we see today is rooted in colonial exploitation. Similarly, the racist ideologies that legitimated colonial rule continue to shape practices and mentalities, being at the basis of systemic racism.

Goodrich and Bombardella (2016) point out that the symbolic landscape is essential in constructing legitimacy for the status quo, producing and reproducing narratives “of civilization and position[ing] colonized people [as subordinate] within that narrative” (Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 35–36). Additionally, they propose including “omission” as a form of postcolonial violence, which “legitimizes the status quo by writing out the violent interdependencies upon which it is contingent” (35-36). The authors incorporate Feldman’s insights on silence in the media, which enforces the norms of a universalizing rationality, erasing everyday violence and shutting peripheric/different perspectives out (Feldman 1994, 405). Feldman points out the “strategies for narrating the Other” (Feldman 1994, 414–15), as well as the bias of public memory and perception. The violence arises from the institutional articulation of state culture, the media and the mythologies of modernity taking ownership of history itself and controlling the discourse. They define the realm of historical possibility, as well as what kind of violence is ‘acceptable’, shaping social perception “to neuter collective trauma, subtract or silence victims, and install public zones of perceptual amnesia that privatize and incarcerate historical memory” (Feldman 1994, 414–15).

Erasing the extremely violent character of colonial rule from our mainstream perception of history means that we are not aware of it, thus it is more difficult to perceive the injustices that come from it. Omitting something relies on silence, which is collective and codified by social norms, and thus fundamentally connected to power. Silence can have many reasons, and Ben-Ze’ev, Ginio, and Winter cite three: (1) liturgical silences, those arising from grief, fundamental moral problems or religion; (2) silences over social conflicts, to (strategically) avoid open conflict; and (3) essentialist silences, those imposed by unequal power relations, which determine who gets to tell history (2010, 4 – 6, 8). Who has the right to speak and who decides what can be said are important questions, with often complex and multiple answers. Understanding the processes of the framing of silences and the context of their eventual breaking reveals much about the strategic interests and power structures of a society (Ben-Ze’ev, Ginio, and Winter 2010, 11–12).

Depelchin analyzes how this postcolonial cultural environment affects and shapes historical methods and practices, more broadly questioning how we ‘do’ history and the role silences play in the process. The cultural environment is shaped by the ideologies and reasoning of the ‘winners’, making up the paradigm of what “goes without saying” and determining the methods and embedded practices of historical research (Depelchin 2004, 1). The fundamental claim is that methods are “not as innocent or neutral as they are often presented as being” (Depelchin 2004, 2) and historic knowledge is shaped by relations of power. Depelchin argues silences should be seen as facts, especially the massive collective silences, for example the ‘blindness’ of the population at the time of the Holocaust or the silences around the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi (Depelchin 2004, 3–4), and turns his attention to the historiography of Africa.

Depelchin notes that African history, especially the historiography of resistance to colonialism, is marked by silencing. Mainstream research is clearly informed by colonial interests of diminishing the magnitude of violence and thus maintaining the legitimacy of the status quo (Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 35–36). This manifests itself as two tendencies, or syndromes, in African Historiography: the syndrome of discovery and the syndrome of abolition. The syndrome of discovery comes from “the conviction among its carriers that knowledge as defined, understood and practiced by them cannot be modified by knowledge contained in the “discovered” societies” (Depelchin 2004, 7). Western historians often ‘discover’ things about Africa that were either obvious for any indigenous person or had been said by African historians and dismissed by mainstream science. This process of appropriation produces and reproduces hierarchical power relations (Depelchin 2004, 5). The syndrome of abolition is perfectly exemplified by “the words and actions of the ‘abolitionists’ who fought to end slavery, crediting themselves as the ones to realize its inhumanity; as if those oppressed by slavery had not already been aware of this” (Depelchin 2004, 6). Both syndromes are similar, yet the syndrome of abolition has a more explicit character of establishing the (moral) superiority of the colonizer.

“The two syndromes operate to create, systematically, the silences” (Darch 2005, 158–59) and unless historians become aware of this (and Depelchin includes himself), they will reproduce such paradigmatic silences and power relations, maintaining the ‘taboo’ around subjects and questions that defy the status quo  (West, 340). The first step to break this self-reinforcing pattern of violence is becoming aware of it. It is essential to recognise that the end of formal colonialism did not mean the end of the oppressive structures and discourses it set in place, neither did it fundamentally change the hierarchical power relations between centre and periphery. Once we acknowledge the persistent inequalities in power distribution, it becomes possible to recognise how this shapes all other aspects of our societies. If Depelchin, Goodrich and Bombardella had not adopted postcolonial methodological and epistemological approaches, their observations and conclusions would not be possible. Adopting a postcolonial approach towards social sciences means interrogating oneself about how power affects our own preconceptions, informs our research interests and shapes our conclusions. Once we become aware of this, we can begin to try looking beyond the mainstream narratives, and for example interrogate ‘invisible’ violence, such as omission.

Postcolonial thinking is essential to the project of decolonialization, which involves “openly discussing the various transgressions, and shameful moments and ambitions, that comprise colonial history” (Chaudhuri 2016). It is a project of rethinking the colonial discourse, of questioning why we still see western history as one of modernity and civilization and non-western history as one of conflict and race. Taking a postcolonial approach means questioning the ideological foundations that still rest upon patterns of colonial legitimization.

At this point, it is imperative to note that a critical approach focussing only on racialized oppression is not sufficient. Racist ideologies were at the basis of colonial rule, but so were patriarchal norms. From the study of the production and reproduction of inequalities, dominance and oppression grew the theoretical foundation for intersectionality. This theoretical perspective affirms the intersections of gender with other dimensions of social identity, in relation to one another are fundamental to our social identities and relations (Shields 2008, 303).[4] There are many different axes of oppression in place simultaneously, and patriarchal conceptions are also at the core of colonial ideologies. Therefore, we can’t question the post-colonial order without engaging with its gendered aspects. Identities are perceived as a feature of the individual, but they reflect power relations and create both oppression and opportunity (Shields 2008, 302).

Thus, African men have had their stories and agency deleted from the mainstream narrative, but African women were even more erased. An intersectional perspective is essential, for it allows us to comprehend and perceive that women of African and African diasporic descent suffer cumulative forms of violence. And while the specific definition of intersectionality varies by research field, the fundamental statement is that social identities mutually constitute, reinforce, and naturalize one another. One category of identity, such as gender, takes its meaning as a category in relation to another category (Shields 2008, 302). We need to think both post-colonially and intersectionally to perceive the deeply entrenched imperialistic and patriarchal conceptions which remain in place and their violent consequences.


III.          Protest as an opportunity


“A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honoured in a community’s public spaces.” (AHA Council 2017)


Understanding statues in their contextual and symbolic meanings allows us to place them as instruments of narrative construction. Taking into account the postcolonial perspectives on the reciprocal interactions of power, historical practice and collective narratives, it becomes clear that protest around statues is about more than public decoration. Presently, the statuary of many cities contributes to narratives of western benevolence and (cultural) wealth, while simultaneously erasing Black people and their experiences. The debate around removing specific statues is intrinsically connected to questions of collective narratives, of which aspects of our past we choose to honour and which we forget (Upton 2017). Framing is at a matter of preserving historic monuments and history itself, implies that “that which survives in perpetuity into the future, [will always] be conceded to those who, in the past, had the money and power to force their symbols into dominant places in the shared landscape of the city” (Drayton 2019, 661–62).

The two syndromes Depelchin describes can be illustrated by the case of Great Britain, contradictorily seen as a champion of both human liberty and slave-trading. It is commonplace to describe slavery as cruel and inhuman, yet it is not customary to name culprits. When it comes to abolition, the discourse often portraits Africans as “passive objects of white benevolence: Africa is ‘delivered ’ from Europe by an ‘honourable band’ (of Englishmen); human rights are ‘established … for the Negro race” (Dresser 2007, 177). There are many statues in London, yet very few of Black people (see Dresser 2007), especially considering it was the largest port in the world’s premier slaving nation.

Madge Dresser analyses the relationships between London’s public monuments and their connections with slavery and points out they “have remained curiously under-researched” (Dresser 2007, 164). “Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London” introduces numerous examples, one of which is the statue of Charles James Fox (1749–1806) in Westminster Abbey. It relies on and contributes to erasing Black people’s agency from the narrative: Fox lies in the arm of Liberty, while a “male figure variously described as ‘anonymous grateful slave’, the personification of Africa or simply, in Westmacott’s words, ‘an African Negro’ […] personif[ies] the gratitude of enslaved Africans to Fox for his abolitionist exertions” (Dresser 2007, 178). Such representations “have helped to perpetuate the disassociation between [western] successful men and slavery” and convey a “sanitized” image of the nation, silencing the connections between wealth and slavery in all its cruelty (Dresser 2007, 174).

She comes to the conclusion that “a significant proportion of the individuals commemorated by public statues in London during the long eighteenth century had important links with the slave-trade or plantation slavery” (2007, 164). The author further argues that “those statues, monuments and memorials which do explicitly mention slavery and the slave-trade – those honouring abolitionists – generally marginalize the experience of enslaved Africans in favour of a self-congratulatory and nationally defensive political agenda” (Dresser 2007, 164). This interpretation fits perfectly with the syndrome of abolition described by Depelchin: white European men are hailed and honoured for having abolished slavery, while those who profited from the system receive no criticism. Slavery itself is not criticised, nor are the connections between the British elite and its profits, but white people are still credited with the role of benefactors. The statue of Fox is but one example of how this logic operates on a symbolic level. The cultural environment is shaped by the mentality of the winners (Depelchin 2004, 1) and statues are excellent tools for communicating political values and shaping discourse (Cohen 1989, 495).

The struggle for abolition is, thus, appropriated by those who hold the power, reproducing the same power relations (Depelchin 2004, 5). It becomes a conquest of the colonizers and is inserted into the narrative of national greatness. White people receive statues for both abolishing slavery and for colonizing (e.g. Rhodes). In the process, the struggle of African people for freedom is erased, and non-while abolitionists are silenced and forgotten, as is the fact that Great Britain was a major slave trader. Another layer of this violent silencing process is the lack of representativity. Black agency, history and existence is not only silenced by how it is represented in statues, it is silenced by not being represented at all. They are systematically absent from public monuments, making it easier to maintain the silence around uncomfortable questioning of the status quo (Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 35–36).

The popular demands for toppling statues come from a desire to change the public landscape “to reflect both the silenced voices of the past and the ideas of the public and the citizenship of the present” (Drayton 2019, 661–62), but they are also linked with wider goals of decolonizing and reshaping our institutions, university curricula and general thinking patters (see the Rhodes Must Fall manifestos). To treat the demands for toppling imperialistic statues as a debate over the artistic or cultural value of the works is a gross oversimplification. Unless the demands are understood together with the broader calls for decolonialization, the debate becomes fruitless. The uncritical celebration of the past as something beyond criticism means compelling those who suffer the consequences of oppression to honour that past regime of domination (Drayton 2019, 664–65).

Statues and museums have always been related to the power to order knowledge and establishing what is acceptable and true by imposing interpretative schemas (Hall 2005, 22). The legitimacy of the colonial regime was founded on very specific conceptions of civilization, religion and social Darwinism, which had to be introduced as “common place” and normative standards. Omitting Black agency, revolutionary action and history from the collective narratives assures that the status quo is not called into question. It is also a deeply violent process of negating the heritage and value of an already oppressed segment of the population. Statues are relevant instruments for (re-)producing collective narratives, therefore reflecting specific statues without questioning our cultural narratives leads to shallow discussions.

Rhodes Must Fall has introduced the topic of toppling statues on the public debate, and we are now in a critical junction. We can dismiss the protests as attempts of censorship and imposing ‘political correctness’ (Lemon 2016; Helo 2020, 125, 128, 142) or we can take the opportunity to pose difficult questions. Who will we honour and how do we choose to tell our history from here on?

Protest can, and should, provide us impulses to reflect our collective practices. The students demonstrating against representations of Rhodes propose a decolonial project and demand we delink the promise of modernity from the rhetoric of coloniality, challenging what we have so far seen as commonplace. Which we should do. We might not be able to change history, but we certainly can question which power dynamics influenced our historiographic practices and what was ignored and silenced in the process. “History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts” (AHA Council 2017) and we have the obligation to critically reflect and debate how we interpret the past, how do we see our own role in history, which aspects we take pride in and how we understand the role of other peoples. We need to consider evidence of the context for why an individual or event has been commemorated and engage in debates that learn “from history” (AHA Council 2017).


IV.          Conclusion: Open questions


“In a world that has rejected colonial domination and white supremacy, is it not time to reorder our cities and museums?” (Drayton 2019, 661–62)


Our societies are shaped by narratives of identity, ethnicity, nation and history, and unless we are aware of the instruments and power dynamics in place we can never hope to significantly change and become more equal. As they are today, our collective perceptions of history are deeply violent and exclusionary, since we see colonialism and patriarchy as phenomena of ‘the global south’, while ignoring the role Europe had in imposing them. If we want to live up to the standards we set ourselves, to guarantee human rights and equality, we must start by questioning our own perceptions.

Depelchin incites us to relearn from the discovered and hold historians (of Africa) to high standards of public ethics. Recognizing the violent character of omission and silence is extremely important. Yet, to achieve the goal of recovering silenced histories we must start by learning to listen, which “can be argued, is itself a `profoundly relational, cultural and political’ act” (Darch 2005, 160). We cannot and should not try to write the history of the silenced for them; “[silenced stories,] like freedom itself, cannot be given, [but have] to be seized” (Depelchin 2004, 209). Popular protest is a perfect opportunity for us to listen to those underrepresented in power.

We should use the controversy around this kind of mobilization to uncover the connections statues bare to past, present and future. To shed light on the messages the symbolism of the statue sends, focussing on the processes of generation and distribution of meaning, rising to the challenge of figuring “out how we can use statues to render the infrastructure of power visible and afford opportunities to gather contemporary concerns around them in meaningful ways” (Goodrich and Bombardella 2016, 39).

RMF, and other similar movements, demand we see statues as the instruments of power they are. We should seize the opportunity to critically reflect our own narratives, who we see as heroes and who we honour with statues. But those are not, by far, easy questions. And the concrete questions of what to do with the statues are also controversial. Should they be contextualized and ‘revised’ by explanatory panels? Should they be taken down completely or moved to museums? Should new memorials “to anti-colonialists, to victims of colonialism, to the liberation heroes of the colonised countries be constructed” (Aldich 2012)?

Some suggest removing the statues from their pedestals as a way of diminishing the sense of reverence towards them. The statue would “no longer function as […] a site of aspiration, projections and reflections of the self in relation to an understanding of nation and statehood. It is now a relic, an artefact of a colonial past” (Jasper 2019, 123). Others propose removing the statues but leaving the empty pedestals. That way, we preserve evidence that these monuments were inescapable and a daily reminder of oppression. It “eliminates the offending tribute while still preserving a record of what [we] did and where [we] did it” (Kytle and Roberts 2018). As for the question of putting new memorials up, Rao makes a compelling argument that statues are a way of claiming space in a socio-political context of exclusion. These new monuments would work as instruments of “agentive power of self-determination to remake the [collective] self, and thereby challenge the social invisibility and humiliation to which the community was relegated” (Rao 2016).

As I see it, putting up new monuments is a valuable opportunity to revive what was buried in silence. Giving voice to the collective memories of oppression, but also of resistance. And allowing us, as western societies, to re-examine our colonial past and position of privilege and transform our cultural and historical narratives. We need to remove statues which honour aggressors, for they perpetuate and validate their actions. And we need to correct the ongoing violence of omission by giving the silenced space in the discourse, to remember the crimes, the victims and the resistance.

Lastly, we should be careful not to (re-)produce other relations of oppression. Just as we need to be aware of systemic racism and its power dynamics, we need to consider other intersecting systems of discrimination. Otherwise, we might end up perpetuating the erasing of women of colour from our narratives. Correcting the ongoing violence of silence requires we adopt critical and intersectional lenses, paying special attention to those affected by multiple forms of oppression. How exactly we choose to do it remains an open question, which we must collectively reflect and address.




AHA Council. 2017. “AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments.” News release. August 28. Accessed July 20.

Aldich, Robert. 2012. “Commemorating Colonialism in a Post-Colonial World.” E-rea, no. 10.1. DOI:10.4000/erea.2803.

BBC News. 2015. “South African Rhodes statue removed in Cape Town as crowd celebrates.” BBC News, April 9. Accessed August 07.

Ben-Ze’ev, Efrat, Ruth Ginio, and J. M. Winter. 2010. Shadows of war: A social history of silence in the twentieth century. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Buchanan, Ian. 2018. “dispositif (apparatus).” In A dictionary of critical theory, Second edition, edited by Ian Buchanan. Oxford United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Chaudhuri, Amit. 2016. “The real meaning of Rhodes Must Fall.” The Guardian, March 16. Accessed July 21.

Cohen, William. 1989. “Symbols of Power: Statues in Nineteenth-Century Provincial France.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31 3: 491–513.

Darch, Colin. 2005. Book Review: “Silences in African History: Between the Syndromes of Discovery and Abolition,” by Jacques Depelchin. South Africa, 54.

Depelchin, Jacques. 2004. Silences in African history: Between the syndromes of discovery and abolition. Dar Es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers.

Dowding, Keith M. 2011. Encyclopedia of power. Thousand Oaks Calif. SAGE.

Drayton, Richard. 2019. “Rhodes Must Not Fall?” Third Text, 33 4-5: 651–66. DOI:10.1080/09528822.2019.1653073.

Dresser, Madge. 2007. “Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London.” History Workshop Journal, 64 1: 162–99. DOI:10.1093/hwj/dbm032.

Feldman, Allen. 1994. “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King.” American Ethnologist, 21 2: 404–18.

Goodrich, André, and Pia Bombardella. 2016. “What are statues good for? Winning the battle or losing the battleground?” Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship, 81 3: 31–40. DOI:10.19108/KOERS.81.3.2272.

Hall, Martin. 2015. “The symbolic statue dividing a South African university.” BBC News, March 25. Accessed August 06.

Hall, Stuart. 2005. “Whose Heritage? Un-Setteling “The Heritage”, Re-Imagining The Post-Nation.” In The politics of heritage: The legacies of ‘race’, edited by Jo Littler, and Roshi Naidoo, 21–31. London: Routledge.

Helo, Ari. 2020. “Bidding Farewell to Confederate Statues: Landscape, Politics, and American History.” American studies in Scandinavia, 52 1: 121 – 142.

Hill Collins, Patricia, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Jasper, Daniel. 2019. “Blurred lines.” In Spaces and places in western India: Formations and delineations, edited by Bina Sengar, and Laurie H. McMillin, 115–125. New York: Routledge.

Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. 2018. “The ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate Monument at U.N.C. Was Toppled. What Happens Next?” The New York Times, August 21. Accessed July 20.

Lemon, Anthony. 2016. “‘Rhodes Must Fall’: The Dangers of Re-writing History.” The Round Table, 105 2: 217–19. DOI:10.1080/00358533.2016.1154669.

Lowry, Donal. 2016. “The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Campaign: Where would the Destruction End?” The Round Table, 105 3: 329–31. DOI:10.1080/00358533.2016.1180046.

Mathur, Nayanika. 2020. “What I Learnt at the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Protest in Oxford.” The Wire, July 20. Accessed July 20.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the postcolony. Berkeley.

Rao, Rahul. 2016. “On Statues.” Accessed July 22.

Rhodes Must Fall. 2015. “Mission Statement.” Accessed August 06.

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. 2015. “Our Aim.” Accessed August 06.

Shields, Stephanie A. 2008. “Gender: An Intersectionality Perspective.” Sex roles, 59 5-6: 301–11.

Tunzelmann, Alex von. 2016. “Rhodes Must Fall? A question of when not if.” History Today, 66 3: 6.

Upton, Dell. 2017. “Confederate Monuments and Civic Values in the Wake of Charlottesville.” Accessed July 20.

West, Michael O. “Book Review: “Silences in African History: Between the Syndromes of Discovery and Abolition,” by Jacques Depelchin.” In International Journal of African Historical, 337–340.


[1] News coverage of this event in the West framed it as a political theatre and a symbol of the defeat of the dictator. It is especially important to note the context of US-American invasion of Iraq at the time, as well as the fact that Sadam Hussein openly defied the neoliberal world order. He was “on the wrong side of history” in the sense that he challenged the paradigm of power. The example elucidates how mainstream media react differently to the toppling of statues depending on which statue it is.


[2]  The concept of dispositif refers to the network of [discursive] statements and objects associated to governmentality. It has concrete strategic function and is always located in a power relation. The dispositive sits at the intersection of relations of power and relations of knowledge (Buchanan 2018). The dispositif and power are intrinsically connected to the discourse in foucaultian theory. The discourse refers to “the conditions of possibility for producing particular statements”, it is a set of “rules that regulate what we can talk about; from which position we can talk about it; which concepts we can use when talking; and which strategies, in terms of themes and theories, it is possible to advance in a particular discursive context” (Dowding 2011, 193). It is both a medium and outcome of power relations, and is produced in and through power. The production of knowledge happens within the discourse, which influences what we can perceive as true. Thus, power is also visible in the regulative power to create knowledge.

[3] The chapter “On Comandment” specifically focusses on the theoretical foundations of colonial power and domination.

[4] For an introduction and overview of intersectionality theory see: “Intersectionality” by Hill Collins, Patricia, and Sirma Bilge (2016).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *