‘How can we fight our colonisers, if we discriminate and exclude as they do?’ First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee on The Fall
In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town started protests to bring down a statue that commemorated Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony for six years in the late 19th century. It was the beginning the #RhodesMustFall movement, which sparked a struggle to decolonise education across South Africa.
Rhodes was a founder of De Beers Consolidated Mines, which dominated the diamond market in the 20th century and generated enormous wealth at the expense of black people, who were subjugated for cheap labour.[i] The protesters said that the statue had “great symbolic power” which glorified someone “who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people”.[ii] They argued that the statue represented white supremacy, and supported the continuing institutional racism, black oppression and patriarchy within the university. “Memory holds our history,’ the said, “and yet books fail to recognise it.”
The statue was eventually removed on April 2015 after a vote by the UCT Council in consultation with Heritage Western Cape. Its removal led to the beginning of a much bigger global conversation about what it means to be forced to bear the presence of statues, paintings and buildings bearing the names of white men who committed crimes against people of colour in the name of colonialism.
The Fall, brought to Arts Centre Melbourne by South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre, takes us from the days before the statue was taken down to the incidents that followed. It begins with seven actors greeting us with song and dance, each delivering a monologue to establish their character. We follow them in their respective journeys through the arguments that preceded the removal of the statue, its eventual removal, and the devastating aftermath.
The first scene is significant, because it presents a recurring dilemma for marginalized activists fighting for change: the choice of strategy versus force. There’s heated argument between the student council, with some students wanting to meet the university board and follow due process, while others arguing that they should take matters into their own hands and take it down themselves.
Both arguments are valid: if they take it by force, they will be stopped before the statue has been felled, and the arrests that follow will overshadow their cause. However, a medical student reveals his own experience of playing by the university’s rules, which was to the detriment of his studies, because ultimately the authorities didn’t care about his success.
The next scene is a hearing where the students argue why the statue needs to come down. While they are recounting this event, a silent projection of documentary footage plays in the background. This was especially moving: we see the activists speaking passionately, some in tears, giving an insight into the magnitude of their battle.
The students were successful in their petition, but the university’s retaliation was swift. They promptly announced a dramatic fee inflation that sends the students into panic. Many students were already barely able to afford paying the university fees, or were in debt with loans that are covering them.
This saw the beginning of the hashtag #feesmustfall, signalling huge protests by students that led to brutal police repression. We see further footage from the real-life protests projected on the cyclorama behind, and are told of tear gassing, the use of unnecessary force, and white students creating a human barrier around the black students. This was something that I’d not previously known, and it was comforting that the black students were not alone in this fight.
We realise that the symbolic removal of the statue is just the beginning of a much longer fight. The students lay it out: the lack of black teachers, the paintings on the university walls memorialising the same coloniser narrative, the curriculum itself, which ignores black history and only tells the white colonisers’ stories.
The Fall is performed in staggered scenes, with the occasional direct address to the audience. These monologues are often accompanied by a capella harmony from the rest of the cast. The set is three tables, the sole indicators when action shifts from classrooms, to a courtroom, or the plinth of the statue. An opaque, gray floor-to-ceiling cyclorama at the back of the stage is used to project images.
The only sound is the live singing by the performers. It’s both beautiful and effective in how it keeps us in the space with these storytellers and their monumental story. I was so impressed with the performers’ stamina: they sang and danced throughout,including during set changes, maintaining their harmony. I know this is the norm for musical theatre, but this was something more, something organic, raw, and painful. I have so much admiration for how these performers shared these stories, maintaining a performativity that was highly polished and structured. It was better than any musical fiction I’ve ever seen.
One recurring theme is something that I think a lot of marginalised groups need to be conscious of. We see these university students arguing amongst themselves, some wanting to use violence against their oppressors, the others wanting to push change in a more strategic way. It shows us the multifaceted nature of activism, where there is a struggle to not only remain true to what you’re fighting for, but to also remember those who might otherwise be left behind. It highlights the crucial importance of intersectionality within marginalised communities, particularly the need to resist lateral violence: the lashing out at women wanting to include feminist goals, the unintentional exclusion of non-cis members of the community, the attacks on those who are not as dark as others.
We are often quick to think that the violence and racism of our oppressors is the main problem, but we forget the insidious ways we can internalise the categories of colonial culture, how it forces us to fight one another or to hate one another’s successes or differences. We forget this is also a white construct. How can we fight our colonisers, if we discriminate and exclude as they do?
The Fall, performed by Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Zandile Madliwa, Tankiso Mamabolo, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana, Cleo Raatus, written by Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Tankiso Mamabolo, Thando Mangcu, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana, Cleo Raatus, Kgomotso Khunoane facilitated by Clare Stopford
Set Design by Patrick Curtis. Costume design by Marisa Steenkamp. At Melbourne Arts Centre until September 2. Bookings