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Our relationship to a statue, or a building, or a sign is always changing. Often the change is so gradual, happening over decades and generations, that the monument – the version of reality it embodies – simply recedes into the background. Of its time: this is the explanation we reach for as we shrug and walk past, if we’ve bothered to look at all. We make the assumption that the past is past, that those ideas and values no longer have the power to threaten or harm, or never did.

The reality is more complicated. For one thing, this is what monuments do: they normalise the past, for better or worse. They make injustices easier to defend and, more insidiously, harder to see. For another, it’s the people most likely to defend those injustices who ultimately decide what is or isn’t threatening, not the people who have been most affected. Only the dominance of the settler majorities in the US, Canada and Australia, for example, can explain their indifference to the statues of Theodore Roosevelt, John A MacDonald, and Captain James Cook that for many indigenous peoples have long represented genocide.

But as the past resonates in unexpected ways as social and economic conditions change, so a monument’s power ebbs and flows. Its semiotics are always volatile. What the Oxford Rhodes represents to students of colour and their allies right now might be closer to what it represented to their counterparts in the 1960s, when the lived experience of colonialism was fresh, than either would be to Chaudhuri’s cohort in the early 1990s, when – as Chaudhuri points out – multiculturalism was ascendant in Britain and their place in an equal, just society felt increasingly secure.

The hated Rhodes statue in Cape Town was relatively uncontroversial in the 1990s. It stood for more than two decades after apartheid, as did (and do) many other white supremacist monuments across South Africa. With Mandela’s election and the transition to black majority rule, victory seemed total: the future was too bright for the past to matter very much.

The country embarked on a forward-looking restorative justice process whereby the perpetrators of apartheid were forgiven so South Africans could move on with the job of building a free and equal society. School curriculums were updated to play down the more painful aspects of the country’s past and many black parents chose not to burden their children, the “Born Frees”, with the history they had lived through and which had been so psychologically devastating. There was power in forgiveness, and in that moment of great optimism it was suddenly possible to regard the figure of Rhodes and feel pity or disgust rather than fear or anger. The statue now contemplated a city whose future, in spite of his life’s work, belonged to all South Africans. Contemporary South Africa was a living, breathing repudiation of Rhodes’s legacy. What need was there to remove the statue?

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