Memorialising White Supremacy: The Politics of Statue Removal: A Comparative Case Study of the Rhodes Statue at the University of Cape Town and the Lee Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia

Master Thesis


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In April 2015, the bronze statue of Cecil John Rhodes- notorious mining magnate, archimperialist and champion of a global Anglo-Saxon empire- was removed from its concrete plinth overlooking Cape Town, South Africa. This came as a result of the #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) movement, a movement that would see statues questioned and vandalised across the country. Two years later, fierce contestation over the hegemonic narrative told through the American South’s symbolic landscape erupted over the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, resulting in the deaths of multiple people in Charlottesville, Virginia. Increasing research on the removal of Rhodes and the removal of Confederate statuary has emerged in recent years. However, previous scholarship has failed to compare the wider phenomena of the calls for removal, from the memorialised figures to their change in symbolic capital, the movements’ inception and its outcomes. There is subsequently a gap in the literature understanding what the politics of statue removal tell us about not only the American and South African commemorative landscapes, but the nations’ interpretations of the past and societies themselves. Therefore, this thesis uses descriptive comparative analysis to compare two case studies where the debate over statue removal has surfaced most vehemently: Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town and Lee’s statue in Charlottesville. Ultimately, this dissertation finds that the calls for the removal of statues are part of a wider change in tenor towards understanding and disrupting prevailing hegemonic narratives of white supremacy, in both society and its symbolic landscape. The phenomena demonstrates that heterogeneous societies with pasts marred by segregation and racism are moving to reject and re-negotiate these histories and their symbols, a move that has elicited deeply divided, emotional responses. Despite waning attention to monument removals, the issue remains unresolved, contentious, and capable of re-igniting.