Bongani Mkhonza & Janina Totzauer

Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu, 2015, Archival Pigment on Cotton Rag, 111.8 x 91.8 cm, Edition of 8. University of Cape Town. © 2015- UNISA Art Collection

Re-imaging the Image

Gracing the high skies of the sub-Saharan region of Africa is the Chapungu eagle, which is known as the most majestic of the snake eagles. The French call it the bateleur eagle, which is loosely translated as the ‘tightrope-walker’. The name tightrope walker paints a dramatic picture. The bateleur eagles are observed to stand “upright and hold[ing] their wings straight out to the sides and tipped vertically, a classic ‘phoenix’ pose… ” (http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_bateleur_eagle.html). When taking off to the skies, the bateleur parades its exceptionally long wings while the tail is almost tucked into its body, as it flies in motions that exhibit fascinating aerial view performances. In her performance art piece that was staged during the removal of Cecil John Rhodes statue, which took place at the University of Cape Town on the 9 April 2015, Sethembile Msezane, transforms her body and becomes the living embodiment of a Chapungu eagle.


What is striking about Msezane’s artwork, which re-images a classic image of the phoenix pose, is that, the viewer is confronted with an uncomfortable intrusive intervention to an anticipated main event: by an unfamiliar site of a revolutionary black female body in the public space. Such as in mythology making, Msezane’s mystifying phoenix pose thus creates an inexplicable and mystifying image that remains in our minds long after the happening has turned into history. That is the potential power of re-imaging the image. An ability to reference an image from different time and space and be able to deploy it anew to strike new constructive dialogues, thus transforming our thinking. Moreover, it contributes in making this world a bearable place to live.

  • Bongani Mkhonza
    Bongani Mkhonza

    In this chapter, I trace the original source of the image that inspired the artwork by Sethembile Msezane titled, ‘Chapungu- The Day Rhodes Fell (2015). I envision that to get to the bottom of it, the etymology of the word ‘chapungu’ as used in the title of the artwork will have to be retraced and given context. The second section of the chapter discusses the content of the artwork in relation to how it endeavors to employ the old classical imagery in an attempt to negotiate new meanings. Lastly, borrowing from a family of critical discourse analysis theories (Fairclough and Wodak 1997; van Dijk 1997; Wodak 2001b) the strategies of monumentalisation as constructed by the dominant political culture will be analysed.

    What is in the title? The etymology of the word ‘chapungu’.

    The word chapungu is associated with a language used by the Shona people found in Zimbabwe. The Shona language developed as part of the greater Bantu heritage populating the central and southern Africa. According to the online VaShona project dictionary, the word chapungu refers to: “Any large, rapacious bird of the Falcon family, esp. of the general Aquila and Haliaeetus. The eagle is remarkable for strength, size, graceful figure, keenness of vision, and extraordinary flight” (https://vashona.com/en/dictionary/sna/chapungu). The Shona tribe of Zimbabwe created myths about the chipungu bird. Some elements of those myths seem to have been inspired by other world’s mythologies of birds with mythical powers. In the beliefs of the Shona, “the bird called chapungu (bateleur eagle) is a good omen, bringing protection and good fortune to a community” (Muzari 2013:1). The chapungu bird is also seen as a symbol of strength hope and renewal. The attributes used by the Shona people to describe the myths and beliefs about the chapungu bird seem to flow into the metaphor of a phoenix bird. Accordingly, I maintain that the context is key in recapturing the derivation of meaning behind the title of Msezane’s artwork. Shedding light on the etymology of the word ‘chapungu’ brings us to appreciate the connection between Cecil John Rhodes and the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Of course, to assume that the title ‘Chapungu- The Day Rhodes Fell’ (2015) is not connected to Cecil John Rhodes might be too farfetched. Evidence drawn from history shows that there is a direct relationship between Rhodes and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia) Moreover, when you ask the Shona people where does the word Zimbabwe originate from, they will inform you that it is a Shona word for ‘Stone houses’. Stone houses are a “historical stone structure known as Great Zimbabwe, which is the second largest in Africa after the Egyptian pyramids” (https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/role-cecil-john-rhodes-british-south-african-company-conquest-matabeleland). Cecil John Rhodes and the British South African Company (BSAC) invaded Zimbabwe in 1890. After the invasion, the lands were named the Southern and Northern Rhodesia, to honour Cecil John Rhodes (https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/cecil-john-rhodes). This connection enlightens us in terms of what might have probed the artist to use the Shona word, ‘Chapungu’ as part of a title of her work.


    Old image new meanings
    The foreground of the artwork depicts an image of an artist spreading her arms far wide projecting a takeoff position. It is known knowledge that humans will never fly by flapping arms with wings. Therefore, this self-defining act transforms her incapable human physicality into a metaphysical creature that is capable and ready to fly. The act by this metaphysical creature can also be received as its yearning for freedom and justice. Moreover, it also becomes a creature that is able to defy and transcends time and space. In her artists statement the Msezane (2016) concedes that, “she employs strategies of creating self-definition that are deeply rooted in looking at her own past, be it through spirituality or relearning South African history and its alternate narratives” (Msezane 2016). The image of this creature is strategically deployed for the audience to perhaps liken its agency to that of a myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes.


    Associated with the temple of the Sun in Egypt, and re-invented in Greek mythology, the story of the phoenix has been appraised as one of the world’s most-loved stories. It is the mythology of the world of modern monsters as told and retold by writers, philosophers, artists and poets through generations. Tacitus and Ovid are the two great authors from the classical period who stand out when painting a picture of the phoenix mythology. Perhaps it is mostly because of the way that Tacitus ventures out to humanise the attributes and actions of the phoenix and he refers to it as ‘he/him’. While, Ovid negates the phoenix of subject pronouns which are only used when referring to people. In telling his story, Ovid refers to the phoenix as ‘it’.


    A Roman philosophic historian Tacitus narrated the story in the following detail, “in the consulship of Paulus Fabius (A.D. 34) the miraculous bird known to the world by the name of the Phoenix, after disappearing for a series of ages, revisited Egypt. It was attended in its flight by a group of various birds, all attracted by the novelty, and gazing with wonder at so beautiful an appearance. The first care of the young bird as soon as fledged, and able to trust to his wings, is to perform the obsequies of his father. However, this duty is not undertaken rashly. He collects a quantity of myrrh, and to try his strength makes frequent excursions with a load on his back. When he has gained sufficient confidence in his own vigour, he takes up the body of his father and flies with it to the altar of the Sun, where he leaves it to be consumed in flames of fragrance” (Bulfinch 19AD:[sp]).


    Ovid’s story is almost similar the one told by Tacitus. Ovid’s version is narrated as follows: “Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these ‘materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odours. From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent’s sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun” (Bulfinch 19AD:[sp]). To this end, Msezane’s (2015) artwork references a known classical image of the phoenix to negotiate her struggle to recover her lost forms of visibility as a black woman in South Africa. In this way, it can be said that she is born again. Msezane (2016) is quoted as expressing that, “by examining past and present representations of black women…, in public and private domains, [she] focuses on the omission of iconic black women in history and mythology” (Gallery Momo 2016:[sp]).


    At the background, the stage of the statue of ‘Rhodes falling’ is set. The site is loaded with the ambience of euphoria, yet almost similar to the scene of tragedy; it also gives you a baffling feeling of trepidation. A sense of uneasiness perhaps also emanates from an inferred ever presence of violence. Intended or imagined, the violence is visibly signaled by a force of a tractor removing the statue. To anyone with eyes and curiosity, the tractor’s arm also propounds an idea of a machine-gun targeting to destroy the statue. Unlike Camus’ (1942) existential theatre of the absurd, this background theatre in Msezane’s artwork seems to seal the fate of Rhodes, as if ‘he’ was going to be destroyed either way. Either by the truck that is physically depicted removing ‘him’ to a point of obscurity or by the machine gun that is inferred to be targeting the top of ‘his’ head.


    Monuments and dominant political power
    In concluding notes, monuments form part of a critical discourse in the legitimisation of a dominant political power structure. The public installation of powerful elites as iconic figures is either a precursor or descendant of the formulation of a nation. Either way, monuments and monumentalisation are a political construct that is trapped within the discourse of inclusion and exclusion. In response to this dilemma, Sethembile’s artwork (2015) deploys a struggle to affirm the existence of the excluded in the formulation the powerful symbols for the nation. Most of all, her work challenges the percieved role of national symbols and commemoration spaces as key features in the portrayal of women as invisible subjects in history. As a young women growing up in Cape Town South Africa, Msezane looked around and saw no reflection of herself represented in public space such as the statues and monuments. Her performance piece where her female black body stands upright holding her wings straight out to the sides as if a phoenix rising from the ashes is indeed an act of self-affirmation. Msezane asks for no permissions but use the re-imaging as a strategy to re-insect her female black body as evidence of her existence.


    Birch, D. 2009 The Oxford Companion to English Literature (7 ed.) The Theatre of the Absurd (1942). Oxford University Press.
    Bulfinch, T. 19AD Bulfinch’s mythology : the age of fable : the age of chivalry : legends of Charlemagne. New York: Modern Library.
    Fairclough, N. and Wodak, R. 1997 Critical discourse analysis, in T. van Dijk (ed.), Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction. Vol. 2. London: Sage, pp. 258–84.
    http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_bateleur_eagle.html (Access 20 January 2019).
    https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/role-cecil-john-rhodes-british-south-african-company-conquest-matabeleland (Accessed 19 January 2019).
    https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/cecil-john-rhodes (Accessed 19 January 2019).
    http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/women-and-the-sdgs (Accessed 23 January 2019).
    https://vashona.com/en/dictionary/sna/chapungu (Accessed 20 January 2019).
    Gallery Momo 2016 [Sethembile Msezane unpublished artist statement]. Gallery Momo, Johannesburg.
    Msezane, S. 2017 Kwasuka Sukela: Re-imagined Bodies of a (South African) 90s Born Woman [exhibition catalogue]. Exhibited at the Gallery Momo, Cape Town 15 February to 18 March 2017.
    Muzari, G. 2013 When a luck-bringing bird falters. The Standard News. Zimbabwe.
    van Dijk, T. (ed.) 1997 Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction. 2 Vols. London: Sage.
    Wodak, R. 2001b What CDA is about — a summary of its history, important concepts and its developments, in R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Sage, pp. 1–13.



    published November 2019




    Janina Totzauer
    Janina Totzauer

    "Rhodes Must Fall" - Personal Experiences of a Guest Student in Cape Town

    The protests around Rhodes Must Fall were a unique and cathartic experience for me as a German guest student in Cape Town in 2015. When I arrived in January, the city was on fire. Literally, because it was the hottest summer in a long time and Table Mountain had caught fire; figuratively, because something was boiling under the students. While the fire-fighting helicopters thundered over our heads, I caught up within a few weeks what the German school books on colonial history denied me. Cecil Rhodes, great colonial ruler and self-proclaimed philanthropist, had once donated large tracts of land to the University of Cape Town, securing for himself an imposing statue on the main campus. Sitting on a throne, the eternal bronze image gazes down from the heights of Table Mountain to the plains of Cape Town, the so-called Cape Flats, where even today many of the poorest of the poor live. The only problem with his patronage is that he illegally appropriated the building land that secured him the eternal gratitude of the university, befitting a colonial ruler. In other words, he stole the land from the locals and drove them out.

    Twenty-one years after the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, it seems overdue that such a ruler be overthrown. The first generation of "Free Borns", all South Africans born in free South Africa after 1994, had reached their third year at the University of Cape Town and they yearned for this reminder of the colonial past to fall.

    I remember hot afternoons spent in the streets. We demonstrated; all of us, white and black, "coloured" or "Indian" as they say in South Africa. Water bottles were passed around, the heat brought some of us to our knees. By the second demonstration, there were many more of us, hundreds. The driveway to the university was blocked. We were better organised. Water bottles, oranges and yoghurt were passed around. When I squinted puzzled at the countless milk cartons, they explained to me that they were there in case we had to wash our eyes out if the police would shoot at us with tear gas. I was still laughing. Later that afternoon, I provided milk to screaming faces and watery eyes. Art students staged performances and the main leaders fired up the crowd through the megaphone. "Rhodes Must Fall!", "Decolonise our University!" In between, old struggle songs were sung in Zulu. Songs that once accompanied the fall of Apartheid. I didn't understand a word, yet the power of the crowd pierced me. Something big was happening here, the history of the country yearned to be rewritten in the coming weeks.

    I pushed my way to the student-organised congress about the next demo on the main campus. I wanted to know where to help. The atmosphere was heated. There was a lot of shouting. Anger spoke from many speakers. I wanted to get involved and raised my hand when, after a while, it was announced that no white people were allowed to speak today. I couldn't believe it at first. I was raging inside. I was on your side. I had been forbidden to speak and I was outraged. To this day, that small and subtle moment is a big turning point for me. Over the next few weeks, I worked my way from indignation to the realisation of what a privilege life I must have lived if I was so outraged to be banned from speaking for once. What a democratic paradise I must have grown up, if I take it for granted that I am allowed to speak and be heard. The fact that the ban was issued because of my skin colour brought me back into the prevailing conflict. If this one ban on speaking upset me so much, how must the majority of people in South Africa have felt during Apartheid. A trauma that even the first generation "Free Borns" have not yet let go of.

    We were standing in front of a government building - I don't remember which one exactly - when the howling grenades went off. We were only about 40 students that day. I knew many of them from the art campus. It was hot and they kept sending white students forward to demand water from the government building's securities or to stand in the front row as a buffer against the police who besieged us. Skin colour as a defence mechanism. The demonstrators implied that whites were less likely to be attacked by the police. That they would be treated more politely and thus have their water bottles refilled. Just two small examples of grievances that seems to be out in the open in South Africa, but disappear under the colourful emblem of the "Rainbow Nation". When a small scuffle broke out between the young demonstrators and the few police officers, there were suddenly two bangs. So loud that the world seemed to sink into eternal silence afterwards. Everyone bursted apart, a young man sunk to the ground. He held his ears. He was later taken to hospital in a taxi.

    It is the 9th of April when the protests are heard. The university has been closed for weeks because of the demonstrations, but today everyone gathers on the main campus. Cecil Rhodes is going to fall. We can't believe it yet. A crane is ready and thick winches hang around his body. Mr Rhodes' head is dripping with red paint, his jacket decorated with graffiti for weeks. We stand on the steps at Cecil's back, also looking down on the city. The city that in a few minutes will be a bit more free. More decolonised. There is singing and dancing. For the first time in weeks, the mood is exuberant. There are hundreds of us, representatives of all political parties take the microphone again and again, wanting to make sure they were there at this historically important moment. And then it happens, the statue is lifted from its pedestal. The crowd screams, drones circle in the air. Smartphones capture everything for eternity. And when the construction fences can no longer hold back the crowd, people also dance on the truck that slowly drives a Cecil Rhodes crowned with a dirty bucket off campus. The crowd continues to dance into the evening hours and as classes tentatively resume at the university the following week, the spirit of revolution is in the air. "We have been heard". To this day, the fall of Cecil Rhodes stands for a first strike in the struggle for the decolonisation of South Africa, not only on university campuses.
    Translation by Matthew Bremner
    Ernst Wagner
    Ernst Wagner

    Taking a look at this impressive work of art I feel reminded of images representing freedom or victory that are important examples of European visual memory. Also pulling down monuments has a long tradition in history, probably not only in Europe.


    published November 2019


    See as well Tlotlo Sereisho's work: Rhodes Must Fall, a Mengelmoes (2021) in the Collective Memory Exhibition on this website: Link.