During my semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa I was constantly hearing about the protests centered around “Rhodes Must Fall.” At the University of Cape Town’s central campus, there was a statue of the former prime minister, Cecil Rhodes, who is a historical figure to South Africa for both terrible reasons in most eyes and good in the reasons to the minority. Frequently the statue was defaced, spray painted, and used as a centerpiece in student led protests surrounding ideas of institutionalized racism and theft due to the terrible system of apartheid. Protests would become violent, so violent that there were times where it was unsafe to go to campus and classes would be cancelled. One of the later lectures focused on the rationale behind revolution, why some people would be willing to risk their lives and their futures and educations for the sake of a protest centered on change.
In thinking about Rhodes, a not as well known figure to most the West as much of South African history is not well taught in the textbooks that I read growing up, it might be easier to give an example for comparisons sake. It would be like if today, if Germany was somehow majority Jewish, and at a university if young people everyday had to walk by a statue of Hitler heiling. That is basically what the statue of Rhodes, who was an extremely outspoken white supremacist, represents for the many students of the University of Cape Town and what they have to walk by every single day on their way to classes. it is the university and governments way of reminding there students of the history of the country, which is not something that they should have to experience especially given the brutal nature of apartheid. While one of the arguments I repeatedly heard was that there is truly non biased historical value in the statue given its age and that in destroying the monument you are destroying history and culture, I feel as though similarly to the confederate flag, there are histories which are so painful in their nature and in what they represent that they should not be openly celebrated.
Some monuments of course can be used to immortalize sacrifice, to represent the effort and lives that were spent in providing freedoms and liberties to people. They can be used to give respects for the tragic accidents of individuals, from highway gravestones to something like the 9/11 memorial, which is now going to be surrounded by freedom tower as a reminder of one of the greatest tragedies in American and world history. In most cases however, monuments are representative of the social values of the time, which in our society that in my opinion should value progress, can be very tricky. At what point does the interpretation of the monument become subjective rather than objective, and who are we silencing or oppressing by representing a certain history? That to me is one of if not the most important question in thinking about what it means to memorialize a moment in history or person.