Off Axis, by Nic Coetzer
On the 9th March 2015, Cecil Rhodes found himself briefly covered in shit. So began a University of Cape Town student protest movement that not only achieved the removal of the 80-year-old seated statue of Rhodes from his prime axial power perch on the campus but also sparked a range of “decolonial” actions that are remaking curricula and renaming buildings around South African campuses. More disturbingly, the protest events also brought about the burning of “colonialist” paintings removed from student residences and other acts of violence.
Further down the hill and on UCT middle campus a far less obdurate memorial was installed in 2006, off axis - unceremoniously shoved into a small sidewalk on a forgotten road. A hundred years ago the Mendi, carrying over 600 black South African troop volunteers, was sunk off the Isle of Wight with all souls lost. Designed by the artist Madi Pala, the Mendi Memorial had a make-over by the architect Trevor Thorold in 2014 which, nevertheless, did nothing to overcome its nondescript and uncomfortable spatiality; in more ways than one the Mendi Memorial sits “off axis”.
These two memorials present object lessons in the workings of power and, more importantly, “how space works” in asserting or undermining these power claims. Moreover, they articulate the conundrum as to how to design memorials in a democratic and egalitarian society - and, indeed, one only just beginning to deal with its colonial past and the contribution of architecture to the machinations of power. Clearly, the Rhodes statue occupied the “best seat in the house” like a deity brought out on axis from within the Grecian temple of Jameson Hall into the sunshine of the land that Rhodes intended to make British. Blinking in the sun, the spatiality of the Rhodes statue set itself up to demand the return of the river of shit that his imperial machinations sent on axis northwards over a hundred years ago, with the great grandchildren of his oppressed bringing that gift back home as apartheid’s first born-free generation of university students. On the other hand, the spatiality of the Mendi Memorial is accidental, geometrically incoherent and random. The memorial does not hold and make a place, and does not support any ceremonial events. Ironically, it inheres the spatial equivalent of the forgotten memory of the Mendi and its lost soldiers who have only recently been honored and remembered as part of post-apartheid restitution processes. And yet, relocating the Mendi Memorial to the now empty pedestal of the Rhodes statue would, despite the hyperbolic and immediate symbolic elevation, simply reiterate the spatial hierarchies of power from the previous regime and fall into line behind the warring imperial powers that sent these soldiers to their death in the first place.
As a counterpoint to these two spatially compromised memorials, this paper will also engage the recent Rustenburg Slave Memorial, following Sadiq Toffa’s winning design for this historically significant portion of UCT’s campus. The analysis will explore the Rustenburg Slave Memorial as a closer manifestation of a counter-memorial, a critical approach to memorial design that attempts to deconstruct the logic and spatiality of memorials and monuments - as best exemplified by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s ‘Monument against Fascism.” It asks if the Rustenburg Slave Memorial design has adequately answered the question of to what extent a memorial must necessarily disappear in order for it to gain legitimacy in a egalitarian democracy, or if it must remain “on axis” to effectively proclaim the injustices of the past and thereby embody and reproduce the spatial tropes of power.