We might as well begin with the end.

“If the South African ‘rainbow nation’ is not the biggest whimsical art piece – disintegrating in front of our eyes – then I don’t know what is,” says Ukhona Mlandu at the end of her lecture on public art at Greatmore Art Studios in Woodstock.

It’s past seven in the evening. I cannot for the life of me recall the date. It’s two or three weeks ago. As she speaks, the night grows deep. The lecture takes place in the main hall. A clean quiet rectangular white room temporarily disrupted by cheers and murmurs from the audience. Imposing art pieces hang side by side on the wall. The unmistakable waft of red wine careens in and out of the dyspeptic air.

“It is important, then, to keep in mind the simple fact that Cape Town is a city in Africa, when engaging with the issue of public art. As far as public art is concerned, in Cape Town especially, it would appear that we must skip a step and not engage with the colonial representations in our public spaces. The logic seems to be: we must leave those colonial statues intact and shift our focus to whimsical beauty and to art that transcends any politics.

“I find that highly problematic, unless we were to decommission all colonial statues that exist. It is disingenuous and dangerous to ask the public to skip the important step of producing a counter narrative to what already stands. And then #RhodesMustFall happened. This showed us the fault in the reasoning that these colonial structures are a nonissue.”

Ukhona Mlandu points to the fact that in the discourse of #RhodesMustFall there were counter arguments to the effect that “the movement must conform to some form of respectability politics and to keep their actions in line with the status quo”.

In the myriad debates on public art, what we are essentially interrogating is memory, memorialisation, and symbolic power; not merely the statue as a thing in itself divorced from its historicity and social impact, but the statue as the manifestation of our continuing class and race struggles.

“We are being dismissed when the State insists on processes that must be followed whenever we bring up an urgent matter,” Ukhona says. “It would be disingenuous to suggest that people had no feelings toward these objects before the #RhodesMustFall movement. What the spark of the #RhodesMustFall movement accomplished was to make people comfortable to come forward and speak out on what had been eating them.”

Underneath the surface of social cohesion and other ways in which the disenchanted marginalised poor are placated in this country, a festering wound grows. One of the accomplishments of #RhodesMustFall was that it drew the conversation on public art to the reach and language of the majority of South Africans. When the Department of Arts and Culture says there are processes to be followed and other more pressing issues to be debated, it only follows the same dogged logic that has plagued the release of Fulham Commission’s findings on the Lonmin massacre of mineworkers in Marikana.

“When one reads the reports of utterances from government, nowhere does one find instructions on the processes that have to be followed so that steps may be taken to address the issue at hand,” Ukhona goes on. “Urgency is met with indifference. The aim is, of course, to weaken the collective voices of the marginalised, whose history is at stake.”

A rise in reactionary positions from the government have been discouraging. Government, in these reactionary utterances, wants to be seen as if it is doing something about the issue while in fact the opposite is true. And we – the public – ought to see that clearly.

Originally appeared in Creative Cape Town online magazine*

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