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“It is a Marvel!” – Read Njabulo Ndebele’s Essay on the Symbolism of the Rhodes Statue at UCT

ViewpointsUCT has shared Emeritus Professor Njabulo Ndebele’s introduction to Viewpoints: The University of Cape Town and its treasures on its Daily News website.

In the excerpt, Ndebele unpacks the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, saying his “exerts a presence on campus which often prompts a desire for his absence”.

The statue of Rhodes, which presided over the Jameson Steps on the Cape Town campus since 1934, was removed yesterday after protracted protests.

Ndebele, who served as Vice-Chancellor of UCT between 2000 an 2008, describes the statue’s symbolic architectural significance:

You may not see him clearly in the iconic wide-angle view of UCT. Yet he is decidedly there. Perhaps it is just as well that his visual presence is not more prominent. He is part of campus history, not the whole of it.

Rhodes is memorialised on campus by a bronze statue of him, now weathered green by time. On a closer look you will make him out, the hippo on the surface of UCT’s river of time, defying casual embarrassment and willed inclinations to have it submerge, perhaps forever. Its broad back defiantly in view, it is never to be recalled without thoughts and feelings that take away peace of mind.

Indeed, Rhodes, the donor of the land on which the University of Cape Town was built, exerts a presence on campus which often prompts a desire for his absence. But, like Moby Dick the whale, he will blow.

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes, ‘sculpted by Marion Walgate and unveiled in 1934′, fits perfectly in Solomon’s abstracted symmetry. To appreciate the bold magnificence of this symmetry, you have to imagine a centre line which begins some two to three hundred metres down the hill below Solomon’s framed foreground, at a spot known as the Japonica Walk. The line cuts upward through the white structure known as Summer House, ‘built about 1760 by the Dutch’ and ‘reconstructed by Herbert Baker in 1894′. A point of architectural serenity amid the din of the M3 highway traffic just above it, the Summer House stands at the upper edge of the Middle Campus.

The line then hops over the highway to the lawn of the rugby fields, the lowest point of the wide-angle picture frame’s foreground. Standing at the edge of these green lawns, the

Summer House behind you, you can see clearly the line of symmetry cutting through Rhodes’s statue, giving it a place of honour you may never have imagined. Rhodes is placed firmly at the centre of the space between the third and fourth pillars of Jameson Hall. It is a marvel!

The line then ascends to Jameson Hall, to cut perfectly into two halves the pediment, a perfect, flat, isosceles triangle resting on the entablature just above the pillars. It cuts through the pediment’s vertex angle, lining its tip with the flagpole at the centre of the Hall’s summit. Then, finally, it leaps like a laser beam across the fynbos and the end of Newlands Forest, to head straight for the forehead tip of Devil’s Peak.

But from where he sits in a panelled armchair about one hundred metres in front of Jameson Hall, Rhodes has his back to the splendour behind him. It is with a great sense of himself that he seems to feel the presence of everything behind him without having to validate it with his eyes. It is there, on his land.

Leaning on his right hand, his right elbow on his right thigh, Rhodes contemplates the wide vista in front of him, below him, facing east. He takes it all in, in a leisurely if thoughtful pose. His left hand, hanging casually over the left armrest and side panel of his chair, holds a scroll loosely. The manner of his clutch is in his gaze. He seems to have suspended reading momentarily to ponder. He will get back to it, when he needs to.

A concrete balustrade just below Rhodes allows you to stand there, your back to him. You too can assume his pose and everything behind him. Then you can see fully what he himself and Jameson Hall behind him can see. For a while you might even experience the gaze of contentment: there, spread before you, is the world you had a hand in shaping.

You and Rhodes see a great deal from that balustrade. You will watch rugby games just below. Farther down, you will see the Middle Campus, once dominated by the Kramer Law Building, now with two newer structures, the Masingene and the School of Economics buildings. Your eyes will move across to the left, attracted by the twin multi-storied residences, Leo Marquard and Tugwell.

Effortlessly, your eyes will leave campus and take in the power station between Pinelands suburb and KwaLanga township. If you have a longer memory you will remember that once there were two cooling towers over there. Those towers and a railway line separated white Pinelands and black KwaLanga, despite the two suburbs’ proximity to each other. How many citizens of these suburbs, you may ask, will have stood together in the voters’ lines in April 1994?

With a slight movement of your face to the right, you will see the N2 highway. A further movement of your neck will reveal more of the wide vista of the Cape Flats and a refurbished landmark: the Athlone Stadium. It will remind you of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, when billions around the world knew for sure there was a city called Cape Town, and that where you stand was a part of that city. Farther beyond, you may see aircraft take off and land at Cape Town International Airport, where soccer fans from around the world will have landed. And then well beyond but within the reach of your eyes, you will see another mountain range: the Helderberg. The illusion of its closeness occurs at the expense of a vast False Bay, a part of the Atlantic Ocean, just beyond the airport.

Although you and Rhodes command a view, the vista before you is too far and widespread to show its imperfections. At some time past you may have read about, heard about, or seen smoke rising from rampant fires in the informal settlements of KwaLanga along the highway to and from the airport; and from farther afield, in the townships of Gugulethu and Crossroads. You might have contemplated lives charred and belongings incinerated, families traumatised; and you might recall the clamours of tragedy in the newspapers, on radio and television, of political accusation and counter-accusation, and stories of poverty and wealth deposited on the deliberative tables of commissions of inquiry.

From there at the balustrade, with Rhodes behind you, you contemplate the imperfections of life beyond in the vista, and ponder on the perfect symmetry that immediately surrounds you.

You and Rhodes command a view.

 

 

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