The Beheading of Rhodes in Cape Town

Nadia Davids reflects on the sawed-away bust of Cecil Rhodes in light of confrontations with memorials both in Cape Town and across the world.

ON THE 14TH of July, I woke in Cape Town to the news that the memorial bust of Cecil John Rhodes had been decapitated. On a cold night during the most powerful storm in recent memory, someone slipped through the locked gates of a South African National Park, made their way up the mountain, and used an angle grinder to sever Cecil’s 176-pound bronze head from his neck.

That night, the unlit skies were wild with wind and hail, the forest full of skittish creatures, and that neoclassical building — the stuff of imperial fantasy — set like a stone temple on the slopes of the eerily named “Devil’s Peak.” To this place, someone arrived armed and ready for their private rendezvous with history. There was no public de-plinthing, no tumbling into a river, no triumphant crowd. Instead, it has remained anonymous; a secret between the statue and the person.

I visited the Memorial a few days later. Built in 1912 on Rhodes’s vast once private acreage, it has a dark colliding colonial glamour — an Ancient Greek–inspired monument to an English imperialist on an African mountain. I hadn’t been there in years and never when it was empty. The landscape was mostly as I remembered it, all fresh sylvan beauty and clean air, but the scale of the Memorial was not. In an odd inversion of how childhood memory usually functions, it was larger, overwhelming even, and everything about it — from the wide sweep of the pavilion overlooking the city to the huge statue of the rider on the rearing horse — communicated something far stranger than ordinary hero-worship. There are statues of white supremacists everywhere in Cape Town — an endless repeat of gray men sitting or riding or standing feet apart, their names carved out beneath them, their vices celebrated, their psychosis valorized, but the Memorial is different. Here, Rhodes is not merely fabled but godly and like a god, above reproach, undefeated by death.

When I was a child, Rhodes Memorial was a Sunday’s destination. For many, it still is. Unlike most public spaces, it remained unsegregated under Apartheid, and it occurs to me on this cool morning that perhaps this was the point; building the shrine gifted Rhodes’s worshippers with a place to congregate, but keeping it open allowed it to serve as a reminder to us non-believers about who and what held power.

The Memorial drew an eclectic crowd even in the 1980s, when Apartheid was at its most ruthless; stoned students from the nearby University of Cape Town entranced by the view, picnicking families, Muslim wedding parties posing for photographs, the bride and her 12-strong retinue all tulle and lace and gold thread against the granite pillars, blue-rinse grannies heading to the whites-only tea-shop (“No taking part in the food allowed,” a colleague reminisced, “just a taking in of the propaganda”), children clamouring onto the bronze lions.

I was one of those children in that dark decade of the 1980s, playing in the shadow of those lions, climbing those impossibly deep steps, making my way up to the focal point that was Rhodes’s head in bronze and reading Rudyard Kipling’s devoted tribute:

Living he was the land, and dead,
His soul shall be her soul!

For the most part, I wasn’t especially interested in the Rhodes iconography. What drew me instead were the two always-empty rooms on either side of the bust. Looking back, I’m not sure if they had a purpose beyond being a design feature, but my sister and I believed that those rooms, with their iron dungeons doors, had once been jail cells, that political prisoners had languished in them, tortured and starved and look — (we’d point at scratches on the door, at the twigs sticking out of the cell windows) some had tried to escape. We were sure too that the ghosts of these prisoners wandered the mountain, that they’d crawl out on wind-torn nights, leaping tree to tree, and that when the city heaved with unrest, when the country was burning and the full, spiteful cruelty of the government was unleashed, the spirits would ignore the curfew, travel to town, roam the streets, and pull the living from their sleep.

It was an uncanny story, part fairy tale, part political horror, one we told to frighten each other, to add a terrifying thrill to an ordinary Sunday. I’m not sure how we came to the ghost-prisoners — we were so specific in our descriptions of their in-life punishments and their after-life activities — but perhaps we glimpsed at something unspoken at the Memorial, perhaps we sensed the blood and theft, the poison and immense violence that lay just beneath the building’s celebrations, and the ghost story was a way of explaining it to ourselves and each other. We were children of color in Apartheid South Africa, and we had learned early to glance at the landscape with one eye on what was hidden, to mistrust the official version of things, to search always for what resided just below and out of view. We knew our city as much by what was said as by what was unsaid. We knew that it was haunted and that at best only half its song was ever sung: Robben Island was not just an island but a prison that held our leaders; District Six was not just an empty field, but a place from which members of our family had been forcibly removed, a site of deliberate ruin and grief.

Driving up the winding mountain pathway, just minutes from the decapitation, I suddenly remembered being 13 and a friend telling me that she knew for a fact that the Memorial was where local Satanists gathered for séance and sacrifice, that she had seen them herself one night, standing in a circle at the top of the temple, holding hands, something small and limp and furry in the center while they raised their voices to sing to the moon. She was there with a friend, she said, looking out at the twinkle and reach of the city lights, when she felt the pulse and hum of something she could only describe as “evil.” She tells me this behind the school chapel in a hushed voice so full of fear and conviction that I have no reason to disbelieve her. I also remember — and this is what frightens me today — that I was not especially surprised.

I had spent the night before this visit reading up a little about the Memorial, finding out some new things, being reminded of some old ones. I didn’t know, for instance, that Rhodes’s nose has been chopped away at seven times since 2014, but I did remember that in 2001, someone had drenched the entire sculpture in blood-red paint. That had been a little surprising; we were only seven years into our democracy, and I still believed that the rainbow and all its pots of gold were going to be evenly redistributed. I remember hearing about the thrown paint and giving a short, shocked laugh, thinking it was a clever, bold way of giving my smug little city a shake around the shoulders, of holding history accountable. It was years before I understood that it was about exactly about that moment and all its early disappointments.

In 2001, the red paint still held the capacity to surprise, but today, Rhodes’s toxic mix of business, politics, and white supremacy has become an ordinary prism through which to talk about colonialism and that concretized colonial dream, Apartheid. The combined force of his dominion over the mining industry, his stint as prime minister, his Cape to Cairo ambitions and the long shadow he continues to cast on South African universities has made him the stuff of powerful, enduring symbolism. His memory was one of the focal points of the 2015 South African student protest for a reason.

I was living in London when the first stories about the Rhodes Must Fall movement on the University of Cape Town’s campus reached me. These kids have had enough, a friend still in South Africa said. She would call several times a week with an update, her voice feverish, her sentences tumbling, filling me in on what the media left out. Like me, a generation or two older than the protesting ones; like me, used to the profound disappointments of democracy, the forgetfulness, the inertia, the corrosive shock of corruption, the endless violence, the breakdown in trust between citizen and state, between citizen and citizen; like me, surprised by how quickly the students seemed to move from malaise to mobilization, how rapidly they shifted the national conversation from acceptance back to reparation, from resignation to demand.

It was after one of those phone calls, sitting in a flat very far from home, in the country of Rhodes’s birth and making, that I thought for the first time in decades about my sister and my ghost prisoners.

As I walk around the Memorial today, I have a little argument with myself. I have never been particularly persuaded by the efficacy of name-changing or the removal of statues; these gestures have always seemed to me to be place-holders for material shifts, sometimes even a political sleight of hand — a circus when what is needed is bread. The afterlife of all these colonial relics only matter, only retain the trace and force of their power, because the country itself remains untransformed. What we need, I think as I climb the stairs, is for things to be just, because if things are just, the statues assume Michael Cunningham’s description of a deposed aristocrat as “interesting without being particularly important.”

I feel safe and settled in my conclusions until I see the bust. It is astonishing, breath-stealing. Everything from the chin up is gone. The neck is intact; it is his face that has been removed. Only his left cheek remains, and it still leans, improbably, on the palm of his hand. Eyes gone, he can no longer look out at the place that he insisted — beyond all reason and decency — belonged to him. He can no longer look, and he can no longer be looked at. It surprises me how shocking I find this unkinging, because Cape Town is known for two things: beauty and violence. It is so chock-full of both that it can sometimes feel as though there is no space for the aesthetic response, the metaphorical gesture, and yet here is exactly such a response, such a gesture in all its disturbing, compelling, riveting complexity.

I look at the grooves left by the angle grinder and think about the demand, stated over and over by citizens to do away with statues, the insistence that removal is a form of repair, that one should not be made to gaze up at the thing that had ground you down. I have gone back and forth about this for years; a circus I think on some days, we should be more resilient on others, but then I remember the hour I no longer had to call my city’s airport by the name of an Apartheid architect, about the unexpected sweetness of that news, the relaxing of my jaw, the loosening of my tongue and I feel less certain than ever that a gesture is not a kind of bread.

Unlike other confrontations with memorials in this city and across the world, this sawed-away bust has gone largely unremarked. It has not been taken up as evidence of mad vandalism or touted as a brave, risky intervention. Partly, I think, because it was done so privately, because one has to make a pilgrimage of sorts to see it, and that the public spectacle is in the aftermath not in the collective doing, but also because of the strangeness of this time. During a less mind-scrambling moment, it may have dominated South African headlines, but in the era of coronavirus, it’s a footnote, the stuff of a passing social media post. I think about the week in which it took place. Our lockdown — one of the toughest in the world — was easing, and our infections rates were climbing, hospital beds were filling and schools slowly — controversially — reopening, businesses were shuttering and unemployment ricocheting. The same Cape storm that had provided cover for the protester had flooded and toppled the homes of the most vulnerable and impoverished. The wealth gap in my city — always obscene — had (incredibly) become worse. Most days, at least three un-homed people knocked at my door asking for food, burdened now not only by gnawing hunger and grinding poverty but also by the terror of being sick or of getting sick.

An Oxfam report had just warned that South Africa was about to become one of the world’s hunger epicenters and that there were children eating leaves (leaves!) to stave off starvation in the Eastern Cape. A churn of stories about government corruption — nepotism, tenders, and misspent COVID-19 relief funds — had broken, the scale of which has been large enough to astonish and wound a population used to betrayal. In this context, the beheading, like the toppling or bashing or remaking of statues everywhere, from Cape Town to Bristol to New Mexico, seemed to be about so many things at once: a vicious past, an unstable anxious present, a horribly uncertain future, as much about the aftershocks of historical violence as about a present-day political duplicity that shows no signs of slowing. And yet, standing before that ground-away face, I wasn’t sure that it was protest action in the way we traditionally understand it. It felt like something else entirely, at once an act of intimate, private violence (how does one not take a de-facing personally?) and a howl of despair made visible. It was no circus or placeholder but evidence of agony, of a demand that we look, that we see, that during this time of sickness and loss, during this time of frenetic attempts on the part of ordinary people to save lives and livelihoods, that we still needed to reckon with power.

I walk toward what I had once called the “dungeon doors” and see that they have been redone — no more scratches, no more scraped-in initials, no more twigs peeking out from between the window bars, no more evidence to give heft and certainty to the childhood ghost story. This too has been remade. Not quite ready to leave, but no longer able to stay, I decide to go to the restaurant, now open to all who can afford it. I will sit with the handful of patrons already there, sanitizing their hands, gingerly removing their masks, placing orders cautiously, halfway between panic and pretending everything is fine.

And then I hear a voice, low and repetitive, and I realize that I am not alone after all; seated a little way from the damage is a man I presume is homeless. He is maskless, in ragged shorts and an unwashed shirt, hair unkempt, beard long. His belongings circumscribe him. He looks as though his ancestors might once have lived just here, might once have hunted and roamed and loved and built and made meaning on this mountain. He is speaking Cape Afrikaans, a language born hundreds of years ago in the mouths of the city’s slavers and enslaved, offering a monologue near the altar of the severed bust. Agitated, mournful, prayerful, unstable, everything he says sounds like a prophecy or a warning. He rocks as he chants, “What do you know? You know what you have. These people don’t fall for stupid. They take the stones. Do you know what I know? You know this but I can’t make you understand. I hear all the noises.”

It is dream-like and strange, and my mind hurries to make sense of it, to hear what he does, to know what he does, to not be stupid, to take the stones, to understand, to think through what — if anything — it means. I am apart from him but close enough to listen, close enough to feel that despite him declaiming loudly and in public, I am eavesdropping.

He continues to talk, to ramble, and I continue to try and follow as though his words are a bridge between the horror of before and the mess of today. I listen and listen and eventually, I give up. I know only that this is Cape Town being Cape Town, that what I am hearing is the always-present collapse between now and then, the constant simmering battle between history and justice, the old grief of the haunted city made song. I know only that a man chanting next to the decapitated bust of a colonialist during a pandemic that has amplified every national inequality, laid bare all our post-Apartheid failures and given every historical cruelty newly animated strength, feels like one of the only sane responses available to this moment, in this place.

And then he falls silent and for a moment on that bright, windless morning, there is no sound except for the faint rustling of a small animal in the underbrush.

But he is restless, and he gets up, turns from the bust toward the doors where I am still standing. His face relaxes a little, but he seems to look not past me, but through me, his gaze focused in a way that renders me invisible. I step away and as I do, he gives a small nod to whomever is before him. Then he raises his hand and says only this, “Salute, brother. Salute.”

Update: On the September 29, 2020, the statue was repaired and the head restored by the Friends of Rhodes Memorial.


Nadia Davids is a South African writer, theatre-maker, and scholar. Her plays At Her Feet, Cissie, and What Remains have been staged internationally, and her debut novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town.


Featured image: "Rhodes bust decapitated" by Zaian is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped from original.

Banner image: "Rhodes no nose" by Prosthetic Head is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and darkened from original.

LARB Contributor

Nadia Davids is a South African writer, theatre-maker, and scholar. Her plays At Her Feet, Cissie, and What Remains have been staged internationally, and her debut novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Cape Town.


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