44 Years of Walking Past Cecil John Rhodes’ Statue

The Life and Times of Mr Peter Buckton, a worker at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Mr Peter Buckton (credit: Author)

On Friday, April 10th Mr Peter Buckton walked from the bus station up to his office at the University of Cape Town. For the first time in 44 years of this daily journey, he did not have to pass the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the university’s upper campus. There was no brass band, no media, just a quietly victorious white-haired man on his way to work. He breathes a slow sigh, and describes the feeling.

“Actually on Friday it was good, it was a good feeling. It prickles the brain when you go past there, especially if you are informed about history and what he stood for. It’s like he’s talking to you: ‘Hey, I’ve got you, I’m watching you!’”

The #RhodesMustFall movement at UCT has been in the headlines since the protest was initiated by the defacement of the statue on March 9th. Intense weeks of protest by the students culminated in the University’s removal of the statue on Thursday April 9th. Debate has swirled around the statue, the means of protest that led to its removal, and what it says about contemporary South Africa. Mr Buckton has been working at UCT since 1971, and has observed the struggle for transformation over the decades. The voices coming out of UCT have been either those of the protesting students, or Vice Chancellor Max Price and the University authorities. Mr Buckton’s story emerges from four decades spent working at the middle levels of UCT – a perspective that enriches and contextualises the present debate.


44 years at UCT: cleaner, lab assistant, sports co-ordinator, student, historian

I visit UCT on the Monday after the statue fell, coincidentally also Mr Buckton’s 62nd birthday. We sit in the boardroom of the sports building for three hours, him folding and unfolding his long legs, folding and unfolding his story and that of the campus and the country. It overlooks the rugby fields and the UCT buildings beyond. The curtains are closed, except for a chink. Wintery sunshine pours through, illuminating Mr Buckton’s face. You wouldn’t know he’s 62 except for the hair and the beard: white wizened curls, framing a lined face. His eyebrows have refused to go grey, remaining young, along with his eyes – intense and curious, hiding a laugh. He begins by describing how he left school before matriculating and started a job as a cleaner here in 1971. He became a lab attendant and worked in the microbiology department for 25 years, before his current post as a sports co-ordinator. Mr Buckton is an institution himself, always referred to as Mr Buckton, not Peter, and now I understand why. I ask why he has stayed so long.

“I liked the university atmosphere, the academic atmosphere at UCT, and all the young people. UCT has such a vast strata of society, different people from different backgrounds, and so many internationals.” He talks with the vitality of a young person and the pauses and cadences of an old person. Mr Buckton is a UCT graduate. He made the journey from cleaner to history student, against the backdrop of the white UCT of the 1970s and 1980s. “Coming from an environment where we were at the forefront of experiencing apartheid laws and the brutality of the apartheid system, it was tough coming up to UCT, which was then perceived as a white institution.” He reclines, reciting his history with rolling ‘r’s. Mr Buckton is a veteran sports coach. He switches between a low conspiratorial half-time murmur and a booming authoritative voice.

“I used to go to lunchtime debates and talks and I became more conscientized. That was the beauty of being at this intellectual institution. I was working for Prof Jack de Wet, the Dean of Science. He had a big bookshelf, and I had a penchant for reading. One day he was chatting to me, I was sitting in his office, which you wouldn’t expect, him being a white professor.” Mr Buckton looks into the middle distance, searching for the names of authors of books. “He asked where I went to school, I told him I was interested in science and evolution and that my intention was to finish my matric. He supported and funded me. Then I decided to do my BA degree, over six years. History and Biblical Studies: I had been an atheist since the age of 13, but I wanted to understand why religion is such a big thing in society, and the effect it has on people.” He graduated in 1992 at the age of 40.

Books and atheism have remained: Mr Buckton still reads constantly, spending hours in the library and online. His sports admin office is plastered with evidence for evolution instead of religion, pics of chimpanzees and the history of homo sapiens, and slogans like “There are no gods or spirits so relax and get on with your life!” That and the lyrics to John Lennon’s Imagine. Mr Buckton says he likes to listen to the rebels: Marley, Lennon, Dylan, revolutionary lyrics. He hums me a line.


Protests, police, and water-bombs

Mr Buckton has plenty of time to talk, and he pays it out word by word, a ball of string slowly unwinding between then and now. His forehead furrows as he thinks back over the years. The wrinkles are deep. After a pause, “I’ve seen a lot of things at UCT, the protests in the 1970s, how things have changed. The protests sort of died down after 1994 but now it’s reared its head again, reminds me of the 1970s.” I ask what it was like to work here at the time, something that is difficult for present-day students to imagine.

“It was at times turbulent. But UCT was a cauldron, or melting pot, at that time as well. There were people from different parts of Africa, South Africa. The SRC was very, very vocal in their anti-apartheid stance, and that angered the government a lot, and UCT’s subsidies were cut.

UCT was known as ‘Little Moscow on the Hill.’ There were always police here. The cops would park their trucks on University Avenue and chase the students, who were always protesting – you know at that time long hair was still cool, for the men. It was still the hippy era, the peace era, and they would be pulled by their hair and thrown around, thrown down Jammie steps with their bicycles. And sometimes the staff members were caught in the melee: the police didn’t discriminate: if you were at UCT you were the rooi gevaar [red threat], a communist!”

Mr Buckton gleefully recalls creating waterbombs from plastic bags and pelting the police with them from on top of the Chemistry building, and the police firing tear gas into the library. The glee vanishes. “It got hectic. The police used to really beat up the students and they were very brutal. Those were turbulent times. And…and it waned after 1994; UCT became very mild in their protest. But once more lately the students are standing up for their rights and for what they believe in.”


Transformation at UCT: why the statue has become the focal point

A statue may not be an immediately obvious target, but the presence of Rhodes has come to stand for a complacent institutional attitude to transformation. Mr Buckton’s view is one of slow change and non-change living alongside each other, at UCT and in the country.

“This has been a perennial issue, the issue of transformation at UCT. There’s been talk about the academic staff and professors, and the demographics not being representative of the country. If that is so the university must address that. Although the university is doing a lot of good things, people don’t really notice that. It’s how people have seen it and how it’s changed. Staff find they aren’t being promoted, or getting remunerated for what they do. It’s not only the students with the perception that white people always get the jobs.”

He leans forward, explaining, the frustration of years in his voice. “There’s been protest about the outsourcing of the cleaning and grounds staff. The university professes to be a democratic place that practices equality, but the people that work here, are not treated equally. The University must address those issues. How, I don’t know. That is what the council must find. I hope these pressures will speed it up, the process of change, and that we don’t wait for the next protest and the next statue to go.”

The Rhodes statue has catalysed actions and debates that have spread across untransformed institutions and campuses. Statues and symbols, which visibly reinforce the persistence of inequality and indignity, have provoked latent dissatisfaction and frustration with the state of South Africa in general.

For Mr Buckton, #RhodesMustFall and South Africa’s failed transition are of the same origin.

Speaking slowly and softly about his disappointments, he traces history. “I think… I think the whole process was totally wrong. This country is still so race-based: the vocabulary: white, black. The whole conversation is race. But it’s a contradiction, because in the constitution we want to build and develop a non-racial society.”

Mr Buckton’s leather-sandaled foot comes down on the floor, his hands are at the cross purposes of contradiction. That’s the tip of the iceberg for Mr Buckton. The failure of BEE, the economy that has remained in the grip of big capital and penalised the poor through rising prices, the crisis of education, and untransformed residential areas, are a few of the things on his list – an index finger poking pointedly onto the table as he numbers the problems. UCT is a microcosm of our society, he explains, and students bring their experiences onto the campus.

“And we haven’t solved the racial organisation of our residential areas. Although you get some people from poorer areas moving into more affluent areas… but the movement is always to the one side. Even at UCT: students coming from township areas must sort-of acclimatise or develop, for the lack of a better term, “European”, culture, and even the accent. We now talk about the UCT accent. But it’s not reversed.”

Questions about funding and access have also been raised by the #RhodesMustFall students.

Mr Buckton links this to broader struggles, service delivery protests and poor material conditions. His tone is bleak. He strokes his beard, frowning. “My view is that eventually we are going to have a revolution or a civil war in this county…These little things [protests]: people are saying something. At UCT we must address this, not wait for a statue to fall or something to explode. Then it’s too late.” He mentions the Russian revolution, explaining the historical conditions of revolution.

His focus shifts back into the room, to UCT and the immediate problems, looking at me with far-seeing eyes. “They always say we’re looking into it, we’re looking into it, it’s in the pipeline. But they never take note, unless you really stand up or do something drastic. There’s probably a huge conservative block that don’t want the university changed, that still see it as a white institution for the privileged, you know. I personally think that the university must be shown to address these issues.” His tone is stern, not bitter.


It matters that the statue is gone: memory, pain, monuments

Is it significant that the statue is down if it’s about everything else too?, I ask. Mr Buckton leans back, closes his eyes, remembering the statue being painted red and blue in the 1970s by angry students. He raises his eyebrows, looks up, speaks with a weary certainty. “The statue isn’t new. There were always students protesting about this big capitalist sitting there looking down at you, saying “Hey, I’ve got you.” He wags his finger, imitating the imperialist Rhodes. “I think it’s important. I’m not one for statues because they glorify individuals. Statues are invariably generals or queens or kings. The statue must go. All colonial statues must go. If Mr X wants to see the statue he should be able to go and see it, but we don’t need it there because it offends people. Especially people that have experienced apartheid.” He pauses, the difference between then-pain and now-pain hanging in the air.

“A lot of the youth today, they haven’t experienced apartheid. They don’t know how brutal it was. My memory is still fresh – we were thrown out of our house. My grandmother’s house is still standing there but it’s occupied by other people. We were just thrown out of the house – we had to move. Our whole family structure was disrupted. Just: go! And nobody came to our rescue or said sorry. We had to rebuild. They haven’t experienced the brutality of apartheid.” Mr Buckton’s voice fills with anger at this forgetting.

“We fought against apartheid, the perpetrators should not be honoured in public, and removing the statues will do no harm,” he says. I ask what it was like returning to UCT after the statue was removed amidst the furore of the evening before.

“It’s gone. The sun still came up, the buildings are still there, people are still standing in a queue for sandwiches – nothing has changed. There’s just an open space there.”

The statue’s removal is one victory in the context of the uncompleted national transition, South Africa’s deferred new dawn. He says his big disappointment is with the ANC, who haven’t carried out what they were tasked with. “That’s why the ANC is losing support, you know.” He raises a weathered fist, his voice fiery, a freedom fighter again. “In the struggle we said ‘Amandla, Awethu! The ANC is going to change everything.”

In the face of a stunted and faltering change to ‘everything,’ colonial symbols are a visceral reminder of the recalcitrant past, an everyday wound to those who are forced to encounter them in public. Their removal matters.


After the fall of Rhodes: what next, UCT?

At the time of the interview the statue had been removed for three days, and a core group of students were still occupying the Bremner building. Mr Buckton scratches the side of his head, considering the disturbance of University colleagues. A life of participating in and witnessing struggle and a life of intellectual curiosity merge in his approach: clear principles tempered with a willingness to consider different perspectives.

“Some say students should be in class and they should make good use of their time and their parents’ money. Those people forget that students are part of the whole of society. They are growing up and seeing this: in their mind it’s wrong, and people should respect that. That’s what democracy is about.”

Over the weeks of protest the movement became about a much broader list of demands aimed at decolonising UCT – the names of buildings and spaces, the curriculum, and the demographic of academic staff. Race, class and gender politics have been melded together with strong Black Consciousness influences.

I ask if this is UCT’s radical rebirth, whether it is retaking its place on the frontlines of struggle? Mr Buckton pauses, leaning back in his chair, drawing his eyebrows together. “I don’t know, I am observing. The statue is gone: what is the next step? People are still in Bremner. I’m not sure what the purpose is. What do they want transformed? Access to funding, the demographic of academics, the curriculum?”

He remembers his time as a student, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “When I was doing history I always asked: why so many European historians, in the main? What about the African historians? Whose history, and who writes the history?”

He stops speaking for a moment and lunchtime conversation filters into the room. “I’m not sure what #RhodesMustFall will demand in the final analysis. I was always part of this anticolonial thing.” He looks out over the sunlit fields, at the unchanged façade of the university. “I mean look at Smuts. How colonial can you get, né? You can’t get more colonial.”


On nation-building and the importance of symbols

The momentum behind the #RhodesMustFall movement points to the toxicity of colonial symbols and the effect of their inclusion in the post-apartheid nation-building project. South Africa retained some of the symbols of the previous regime as a gesture of inclusivity during the time of the transition. Today these symbols may not be overtly offensive to those who didn’t experience apartheid directly, but Mr Buckton remembers, and his embodied memories complicate contemporary amnesia.

Part of Die Stem, the South African national anthem under apartheid, is retained in our current anthem. He speaks quietly. “We take things that have oppressed us, like the anthem, and expect people like me to sing it, parts of it. Because I mean, I can’t. We were forced to sing the anthem that oppressed us. At school the police were there every morning. They raised the flag, we didn’t want that flag because we couldn’t relate to the government at the time. We said no that’s nonsense, we rejected it, and then we were given six lashes. The police would come in and put the fear into you that you would be arrested, they would phone your mother who would say you must sing. It had a tremendous psychological effect on us as young people.”

The anthem is only one aspect – the Springbok has remained the emblem of the South African rugby team. During apartheid all sports were ‘Springbok’, and black and coloured people could not be Springbokke. They had to play for their own teams. Yet the Springbok remains. Mr Buckton shakes his head. “They are still pushing something exclusive, and imposing it on people. Why can’t we take something else and make it our national anthem? So why don’t they get new colours for our teams and one badge, so we can identify? We haven’t addressed those things.”

The afternoon sun has heated the room, and Mr Buckton’s smiling colleague enters and passes him the keys to his empty office. He thanks him, adjusts his position and continues, one leg crossed over the other. “As people will say, you can’t brush history away. Cecil John Rhodes will always be part of our history. Apartheid, Paul Kruger, the colonial government since 1652, the British and the Dutch. But we must forge a new history, a South African history, not an ‘us and them’ history.” He gathers steam, the vision alive again. “That’s the only way we’re going to move forward. We must say fine!” – he chops the edge of his palm on the table – “that was the past, let’s start anew. But we’re still stuck: Afriforum has got their monuments, the ANC has theirs, everybody! We will never move forward, there will always be conflict. If you want a new thing, you must take all the things that are a hindrance to progress.” His right foot pedals the air on important words. “We want to create a new UCT that will incorporate everybody, that will unite us, which we identify with.”

The ramifications of the fall of the Rhodes statue have been public acts of defacement and public acts of protection of various monuments, highlighting South Africa’s contested history. This has brought the symbolic, material elements of nation-making back into the public debate. The question of whether a unified South African identity and history can exist, or whether this is always an act of silencing and only an “us and them” history can be true, is burning fiercely again.


Movements, ideologies, and othering: back to the roots of it all

Mr Buckton is firm in his belief that a unified, non-racial South Africa can exist. He is wary of ideologies and leaders that essentialize: “These are invariably the people that end up on statues and horses,” he says wryly. He is concerned about the racialized politics of the student protest, arguing that ‘black’ and ‘white’ are colonial concepts in the first place. He complicates the narrative of exclusively black suffering, drawing on the history of white students both fighting apartheid and suffering direct consequences for doing so. “Ivan Toms was locked up for how many years? People must recognise that, he was a South African, he was a fighter, we mustn’t look at his pigmentation.”

Mr Buckton believes that through processes of becoming conscious, all people can stand up against injustices that are not directly their own. “They [whites or people of other races] are affected, they read about it, they are exposed to it, their consciousness is awakened by it. People in a struggle for justice will stand up and say no, even if they pay the ultimate price.” His hands are working with invisible materials: he expands time, divides people into groups, and folds them back together, a seasoned illustrator of dynamics and movements. “We need to grapple with that, and not see things as ‘I am a black person, and the only one with the right to speak on this, I am the only one that can write the history of South Africa’, which is not true. It should be all South Africans and what you can contribute, what you stand for: you the person.” He feels that we no longer know each other, and that this a primary cause of othering and conflict, historically and today.

Mr Buckton digs into history, going back to the arrival of the first white people at the Cape. “When the colonialists came here and saw people in the Cape they thought: heathens, savages! But they never knew each other. That’s why people became slaves: because they became the other.” He mimics the voice of frightened imperialism: “‘They are different, aliens, not human!’ That’s how racism developed over the years. ‘They are different.’ That was the basis of apartheid.” He argues that dialogue and genuine engagement make othering impossible, and that we urgently need to start talking, or else history will be repeated. He mentions the xenophobic attacks, frowning again. “A lot of people don’t go out to talk to people, especially South Africans. We want to go to Europe, not Africa, to see how other people live. You must go there and talk to people man! Say how are you, howzit, sit down, they’ll make some food and you try it. But we don’t talk to each other.”

Mr Buckton is bothered by this. He has 62 years of hindsight. “We don’t learn from the past, but history is supposed to teach you that. That’s why I love history, it teaches me. We need to talk about our history.”


Change, evolutionary time, and the role of universities

In spite of everything, Mr Buckton is not without hope. His voice lifts as he describes the power of universities to change mindsets and trajectories, and the role students can play in unsticking our process of change. “UCT has a huge role to play… UCT has produced fantastic academics who have done tremendous work in society. Not only UCT but all academic institutions have a responsibility: this is where intellectuals should come from. If you’re an intellectual you can think, resolve our problems, logically work things out. That’s why you’re here, not just for your degree.” He is an advocate of reading and reading widely, to develop a non-dogmatic view of the world. “Education is about opening your mind, so that you see you’re not the only one in the circle of reason.”

The conversation has carried us far, through the decades, and hours have passed. Mr Buckton picks up a birthday chocolate; it’s a Tex. “If this is a millennium – a thousand years – we are here.” He pinches the flimsy edge of the wrapping between his thumb and forefinger, a tiny fraction of the length of the Tex, 1994 to 2015. “We can’t change this country like that! People say, ‘oh it’s been 21 years,’ but that’s nothing. Evolution works in thousands and hundreds and millions of years!” He illustrates: the pressed together palms of prayer separated by an aeon. “I believe everything evolves, not only your DNA. Life is evolution. And this, this 21 years, we haven’t even touched what we are supposed to do.”

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.