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Article Movement & Migration

Statues: the chase for eternal life

Since time immemorial, humans have always been on a look out for that illusive fountain of youth. It has always been man’s main desire to stay young forever and have a longer life.

With each passing epoch mankind came to realise that immortality is but a pipe dream, all he could do to extend his existence was to leave behind sculptures and statues that would represent him. These artwork came to symbolize man’s yearning for an everlasting life.

The reasons for the erection and, continued affinity towards these statues differed and is dependent on how the next generation saw these sculptures. The viewpoint of the next generations, either spelled the longevity or demise of them.

If one looks around the globe one is met by various symbols and artifacts that have been left behind by those who hoped to live a longer life or be reminded of certain individuals who touched their lives in one form or the other, from the San cave artworks to the famous Indian love symbol the Taj Mahal.

The founder of China’s Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang (221–207 BCE) commissioned the creation of thousands of clay soldiers that became known as Terracotta Army.

This army is made up of more than 6,000 life sized figures that include soldiers, horses, chariots, bowmen and archers, the Emperor built these soldiers so that they would protect him in his afterlife.

It is not the number of years in existence that determines the longevity of a statue but it is what it symbolizes at the current time that decides its demise or not.

On 9 April 2015 many around the country and indeed around the world watched as a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, that had been erected at the University of Cape Town(UCT) South Africa, was removed after being there for just over 80 years. The students had started a campaign called “Rhodes Must Fall” and they called for its removal from the university’s yard because they felt it symbolized institutional racism, the irony of it all being that the land where the university was built was donated by the same Rhodes who was now a pariah.

To many during the Apartheid years, he was seen an astute and exemplary businessman who set a good course for many who followed him. With the coming in of democratic and majority rule in South Africa, public opinion about him began to change to a point were his statue was removed from the UCT campus.

During the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign days, a South African media house called News24 commissioned one of its journalist to spend time with some students so as to get their direct views of the ensuing campaign.

Three of the students followed and interviewed were Ntokozo Dladla, Mbali Matandela and Ishmael Mahlangu, who were directly involved in the occupation of UCT’s administrative building as well, they were selected because they came from different backgrounds and the expectations were that the journalist would get a broad view of why they were part of the campaign.

Even tho the students explained that they came from different backgrounds one coming from a private school in Gauteng and the other from a rural school in Mpumalanga, the students reasoned that it was their shared skin colour that united them since the felt their skin colour irrespective of their economic background made it easy for them to be alienated in the university.

One said: “We are just trying to recognise that we have a right to be at this university,” said Dladla, a 21-year-old student currently in his fourth year of an LLB (law) degree.

The systems and the processes in place here have worked in such a way to exclude us from feeling as though we are part of this university. We feel alienated.

Matandela, a 21-year-old Honours student studying gender and transformation, said the issue went much deeper than mere words on a building or a statue, but rather it was focal point for a much wider issue.

“The lectures don’t represent your history or your narrative at all,” she said.

“You don’t see yourself on the campus monuments, on the naming of the buildings. You then turn to your books which don’t address you.

A mere two decades before, on 11 February 1990, a man who symbolized the worst form of terror to his enemies and the greatest form of hope for his supporters, walked out of prison to mixed motions. When Nelson Mandela walked hand in hand with Winnie Mandela after spending 27 years behind bars, he represented two opposing views of people from the same country.

In the months following his release the world watched as he transformed into one of the most beloved politician and statesman, his transformation saw those who had been seeing him all along as the terrorist of worse kind turning him into a commodity they wanted a piece of and the black majority questioning if this is the same Mandela they waited for all these years.

Mandela preached reconciliation and his version over time was shown to be lopsided, for it allayed white people’s fear while ignoring the black majority’s expectations. Calls from the black majority for holistic changes were ignored by Mandela and his ilk reasoning that people must be patient, its been over 20 years and the black majority has political power but not economic power.

Towards the latter ages of Mandela’s life a number of statues of his image were erected across the world, these stand tall from shopping centers to the front of Union Buildings, the official seat of the SA government.

Wole Soyinka the Nigerian poet asked everyone who cared to listen that they must confront history honestly, the reality is that the majority of black South Africans have started asking uncomfortable questions regarding this whole Rainbow Nation creation.

One wonders if the future generations will still have affinity towards the Mandela statues or as history teaches us, there might be a change of mind when it comes to him as well.

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