Hundreds of South African students cheered Thursday as a crane lifted the decades-old statue of a British colonialist, celebrating the end of what they described as a symbol of white privilege.
The University of Cape Town removed the statue of Cecil John Rhodes after weeks of student demonstrations that began when one student flung excrement at the bronze sculpture last month. The statue has been covered up for the past few weeks as both white and black students regularly marched past with #Rhodesmustfall placards calling for its removal.
The protesters, known as the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, said the statue's perch overlooking the university campus was a reminder of how little the university had changed since the end of apartheid, with the majority of faculty made up of white academics.
Spattered with graffiti, the statue was hoisted by crane onto a truck from its tall granite plinth overlooking a rugby field as thousands of watching students cheered.
Some protesters climbed onto the truck to wrap tape around the face and place a bucket on the head.
“This represents a good step forward for transformation, and it shows if something is wrong, you really do have the power to change it,” politics student Tinashe Sibeko, 18, told Reuters.
After it was gone, several students climbed onto the statue's base singing anti-apartheid anthems, while others carried posters reading “More than a statue.”
“The statue has great symbolic power; it glorifies a mass-murderer who exploited black labor and stole land from indigenous people,” said the movement's online petition, signed by 1,550 supporters. The movement also urged the removal of all statues and plaques “celebrating white supremacists” and called for more black South Africans on the faculty and represented in the curriculum.
A smaller counter campaign, called Rhodes Must Stay, had argued that the statue should be protected as a symbol of South Africa's heritage.
The university's governing council, made up of students and staff, voted Wednesday to remove the statue and promised to store it safely.
Rhodes, who lived from 1853 to 1902, made a fortune from mining and appropriating land in southern Africa. The businessman and politician was also a philanthropist and his legacy today is associated with education trusts, such as the prestigious Mandela Rhodes scholarship.
The university debate sparked a wave of protests in which apartheid-era statues have been vandalized. Members of an opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, have claimed responsibility for some of the damage. The ruling African National Congress said vandals should be prosecuted.
In the capital Pretoria, volunteers chained themselves to a statue of Afrikaner leader and Rhodes' contemporary, Paul Kruger, promising to guard the memorial.