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Cecil Rhodes, Heritage Formation and Contemporary Popular Culture by Duane Jethro

6 June 2014

“I don’t understand why all these statues are still there”, remarked a new acquaintance in reference to the classical apartheid and colonial monuments dotted around the city of Cape Town. I often have to field this question after explaining my work on heritage formation and commemorative culture in post-apartheid South Africa. The short answer is that the state’s abandonment of iconoclasm—except for the most egregious cases—stems from the values of reconciliation and nation-building that inform the democratic dispensation. Our culture of monumental tolerance goes back to apartheid. Anticipating a new, united South Africa, liberation movements held back from attacking major heritage sites like the Voortrekker Monument, despite their strategic political and symbolic value. However, annoyed, infuriated and even insulted they may get, South Africans continue to harbour complicated attachments to their material commemorative inheritance.

That, however, does not mean nothing can or has been done. In the absence of the state intervening, in post-apartheid South Africa, groups have sometimes taken matters into their own hands and staged their own cultural interventions in an attempt to topple and interrupt these static commemorative markers powers of signification. In doing so, they have raised some interesting questions about how to figure classical heritage forms in post-apartheid South Africa, and heritage formation as a cultural and political enterprise. In this post I want to look at one such intervention and briefly reflect on the kinds of possibilities such a critical cultural intervention can enable.


As their contribution to Heritage Day commemorations, on the 24th of September 2007, an activist group calling themselves the Kultural Upstarts Kollektive assailed upon a magnanimous statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, to stage a cultural intervention. Members of the group mounted the larger than life effigy of a brooding Rhodes and proceeded to clothe the statue in the colourful repertoire of South African football supporters’ effects. They placed a makarapa on his head, slipped a pair of oversized plastic spectacles over his eyes, wrapped him in the colours of a popular local football team Kaizer Chiefs, and placed a vuvuzela in one of his hands. It was a stunning intervention. Decorating the statue in the accoutrements of contemporary popular culture, the Kultural Upstarts Kollektive interrupted this heritage form’s dominant representation of Rhodes’ as an icon of British imperialism by briefly transforming it into an iconic representation of South African footballing fervour.
Despite its playful overtones, this critical engagement was not intended to merely stir controversy. It was strategic, explicitly designed to highlight the potential alternative commemorative engagements posed for redefining the status and significance of classic material heritage forms. As Raffaella Delle Donne explained on behalf of the group, the purpose of the intervention was to highlight that “symbols like statues don’t have to remain static reminders of our oppressive past”. They could be “reinvented in creative ways to make meaningful statements about the present”. Redecorated as an ardent football supporter, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes could therefore represent a “hybridised product of the old and new South Africa” fixed in one location (1). The Kultural Upstarts Kollektive’s playful Heritage Day intervention subverted the authoritative, sequential conventions of time that classic, colonial heritage forms structured. By decorating Cecil John Rhodes to look like an avid football fan, the Kollektive foregrounded the redemptive power novel, creative commemorative interventions could enable in post-apartheid South Africa.

Redressing the colonial past to link to a post-colonial footballing present, this intervention was also significant because it established complex relationships between seemingly contradictory socio-cultural genealogies. For indeed, the Kultural Upstarts Kollektive did not merely ask questions about the colonial past. They also sought to advocate for the heritage significance of forms of contemporary popular culture.

On one hand it signalled Rhodes emblematic place in South Africa’s colonial past. Born in 1853, Cecil John Rhodes first travelled to South Africa in 1870, and made his fortune in the diamond industry in Kimberley. He was also an imperialist committed to the cause of expanding the British empire, and was best known for his fascination with establishing a railway line connecting the Cape and Cairo. A grand colonial fantasy, the Cape to Cairo axis captured Rhodes attention as a route of potentially indomitable commercial and colonial conquest and control (Merrington, 2001). He did not live to complete the project, yet his imperial vision lived on through the statue erected at the University of Cape Town. Sculpted by Marion Walgate, the larger-than-life bronze statue depicted Rhodes hunched over, deep in thought, as if puzzling over the challenge of traversing the infinite African vista that lay before him (Schmahmann, 2013: 58-63). It vividly captured his close friend and architect Herbert Baker’s observation about the magnate, “So Rhodes from Table Mountain dreamed of the extension of the Empire from Cape to Cairo” (1934: 164).

On the other hand this intervention signalled a subversion of this colonial legacy, one manifest in a vibrant, post-apartheid football fan culture. As Peter Alegi pointed out, “The first recorded football matches come from South Africa … in games involving whites in the Cape and Natal colonies” in the 1860’s (2010: 2), with the term soccer deriving from the associations formed playing these early, rudimentary games. The sport became very popular amongst the black working class in the early 20th century, appealing particularly to miners working on the Gold Reef in the north of the country.

The material effects adorning the Rhodes statue clearly reflected this history. Miners living in the hostels in the township of Soweto, just outside of Johannesburg, were the primary support base of football teams like Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Referencing migrant work in South Sotho, the makarapa had been invented by Alfred Baloyi in the 1970’s as a protective decoration crafted from the hard hats these migrant workers wore while labouring underground.

As such, while forces of colonial conquest and control attempted to subdue black Africans by submerging them to the depths of Johannesburg’s gold mines to extract mineral wealth, black Africans were able to use these conditions to develop a liberating alternative popular culture on the football pitches above. In this anarchic cultural intervention, therefore, Cecil John Rhodes manifests as an ironic emblem for a colonial past that informed a rich and vibrant culture of football fandom in the 21st Century.

Overall, by clothing their engagement with heritage in the discursive and material effects of South African football fan culture, the Kultural Upstarts Kollective drew on the theoretical power of contemporary popular culture not merely as a playful interruption, but as a critical lens for interrogating the apparent self-evident legitimacy of classical heritage forms and the practise of heritage making itself.

Duane Jethro is a South African PhD student in social and cultural anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

(1) Recasting Cecil’s Shadow”, 27 September, 2007. UCT Daily News Archives


Alegi, P. (2010). African Soccerscapes: how a continent changed the world’s game. London: Hurst & Company.
Baker, H. 1934. Cecil Rhodes: by his architect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merrington, P. 2001. ‘A Staggered Orientalism: the Cape to Cairo Imaginary’. Poetics Today, 22(2) Summer: 323-364.
Schmahmann, B. (2013). Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Universities. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.