Statues and Storms – a memoir about leading a university in turbulent times and back to safe harbour

10 Apr 2024
Statues and Storms
10 Apr 2024
Statues and Storm
Max Price's book Statues and Storms:  Leading through change




























Max Price was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) for a decade that spanned a watershed period in higher education in South Africa. From 2015 to 2017, triggered by the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) protest at UCT, the universities across South Africa experienced the most sustained, disruptive and at times violent protests. RMF’s global ripples have contributed to the removal of statues, symbols and names on campuses worldwide. On South African campuses, the movement has compelled a deep re-examination of their institutional cultures. Following RMF, the Fees Must Fall protests shook up the funding of South Africa’s universities and also led to a reversal of outsourcing at many. However, the Fallist movement fragmented and degenerated into an extended series of destructive storms that threatened to ruin universities. 

This book is a memoir about leading a university in turbulent times and back to safe harbour. It is an insider’s view of the protests, an attempt to explain what happened, and why the decolonising protests erupted at liberal universities two decades after the transition to democracy. It is about leadership and the tough decisions leaders have to make, especially in times of rapid transformation. Finally, it is a reflection on some enduring themes in academia that were in the eye of the storms – academic freedom, artistic freedom, limits of the rights to protest and civil disobedience, institutional culture, racism and inclusiveness, funding higher education, outsourcing and a few more.

The excerpt below, from Statues and Storms, details the day the Rhodes statue was removed from the UCT campus. 

The statue was part of a precinct that is a proclaimed Provincial Heritage Site, comprising the whole upper campus, and as such the university was not free to tamper with the statue without obtaining a permit to do so. The process of getting a permit usually takes months to years. We knew that it would be enormously complicated not to act on the Council resolution quickly. So we had approached Heritage Western Cape early in March to negotiate a temporary permit to remove the statue should that be the Council decision. This was granted on condition we accepted that should the permanent certificate not be granted, we would have to put the statue back on its plinth. (The final removal certificate was issued eighteen months later, on 10 November 2016.)

Early on the morning of the 9th, the contractor with truck and hoist tested to see that the statue could in fact be lifted and removed. We invited all members of the campus community to assemble at the statue before 5 pm to observe its departure. Under other circumstances, the event would have been organised and convened by the university executive, and probably the Council. However, the students clearly wanted to own the event and make it their victory, and inserting representatives of the executive or Council into the ceremony would generate significant conflict. The RMF hardliners were still sore that the process had ultimately been drawn out and the out-come subject to a Council decision. They issued a statement on the 9th at a rally they called outside the still-occupied Bremner Building just before the statue’s removal, refusing to concede that management should get any credit for being supportive of the protesters’ goals and for helping to shape the debate to its desired outcome.

The removal of the statue by management is not something we should be grateful for. Management has undermined and antagonised us through-out this process. They described Maxwele’s protest action as reprehensible, they insist on defending Rhodes’s legacy, and they have made it clear that they think that black pain is debatable. Last night, we stormed a meeting of Council and refused to leave, declaring that no decisions could be taken about us, without us …

We must at no point forget that management are our colonial administrators, and their removal of the statue is merely an attempt to placate us and be perceived as sympathetic. Our freedom cannot be given to us – we must take it. We want to be clear that our only regret is that we did not take the statue down ourselves. Going forward, we will no longer compromise. Management is our enemy.
Most students still occupying the Bremner Building left in line with the agreement with the SRC. A small number refused and eventually left after three days on Sunday evening, after a warning that management would seek an interdict to evict them.

By late afternoon on 9 April, a large, racially diverse crowd of staff and students had gathered to observe the ‘fall’ of Rhodes. The atmosphere was celebratory. I stood close to the fence erected around the truck and statue to prevent onlookers from interfering with the workmen who were strapping the statue to be hoisted up and onto the truck. There was singing and dancing. A beautiful work of art portraying the Zimbabwe bird was being performed by art student Sethembile Msezane.

After a few largely inaudible speeches, the crane lifted the statue slowly and swung it round onto the truck. A few students broke through the fence barrier and climbed onto the truck to add paint and lashes to the statue. The crowd cheered, hundreds of cellphone cameras capturing the spectacle. I felt jubilant and inspired, and at ease, following a hectic, stressful, roller-coaster month, plagued with anxiety about whether we were doing the right thing. With the crowd, I had the feeling of participating in a truly historic moment, and one that could be the tipping point in the trajectory of transformation at UCT, and probably at all the historically white campuses of the country, many of which had embarked on similar campaigns. It felt as if we had reached the top of a hill we had been climbing for 25 years, against the resistance of an unyielding institutional culture, and now we were on the downhill slope – the going would get easier and faster.

I was proud that we, the institution, had removed the statue. I was proud of the discussions we had made possible and the consensus we had built. And I was greatly relieved that the iconoclastic crusade had not succeeded in toppling or destroying the sculpture. The truck slowly moved off, taking the statue to an undisclosed storage garage.

For me and, I think, the majority of stakeholders, it was never about destroying the memory of Cecil John Rhodes, nor about denying the hugely significant role he played in southern Africa’s political and economic history. It was also not to erase his commitment to higher education and his philanthropy. It was about how the setting of this monument to Rhodes announced the values and aspirations of colonialism as core to UCT, embedded in its institutional culture – a culture the university was trying to change.
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It is notable, in the years since Rhodes Must Fall, how many universities in the United States and the UK, and to a lesser extent in Europe, have been forced to confront the statues, symbols and other venerations of people they previously honoured and whose values and deeds are now considered obnoxious. In many cases it has been a reckoning with the funding of universities from the proceeds of slavery. Edward Colston, for example, was a wealthy 17th-century slave trader, whose wealth helped establish the University of Bristol in England. Colston’s statue was pulled down and dumped in the Bristol harbour by protesting crowds in 2020.

In other cases, the statues that have been removed are of political or military leaders whose values are now in conflict with the university’s. In 2017, the University of Texas at Austin, removed four statues of Confederacy leaders from the central mall of its campus. Similar statues were removed at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, and several other campuses. This global movement, which was an occasional ripple before RMF, became a tsunami as a result of the protest and removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT.

Postscript. That weekend I was buying paint with my wife at Builders Warehouse in Cape Town. Sitting in the coffee shop, I was approached by a tall man who addressed me by name, with an American accent, saying he wanted to buy the statue. Tie Sosnowski said he was an emissary sent by a Harlan R. Crow, a collector of statues in Dallas, Texas, whose life purpose was to rescue and display fallen statues in a theme park of historical leaders. He sent Sosnowski out as soon as the RMF campaign started. The emissary had joined in at most of the protests and had even been one of the invaders inside the Council meeting room. He said his boss was offering to buy the statue or, if we did not want to part with it in perpetuity, to lease it from us for twenty years for display in the Texas theme park. After that we could have the statue back. He particularly wanted the Rhodes statue since it was the toppling of a Rhodes statue in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1979 that had got the collector interested in this project thirty years before – but he had not been able to acquire that or any other statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

This an excerpt from Max Price's 'Storms and Statues' published by Tafelberg.