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A South African university is replacing a colonial ruler’s name with a symbolic and powerful figure

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The crown jewel in University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) symmetrically pleasing main campus is its hall. The campus lies in linear regularity against the iconic backdrop of Devil’s Peak, part of the spectacular mountain range that circles the city. The triangular parapet of the hall reaches for the peak even as its steps cascade down towards the busy streets of Rondebosch, the suburb below.

With UCT ranking as the top university on the continent, this stock image has come to symbolise more than just one campus, but African excellence itself.

The physical view of the campus changed forever in 2015, with the removal of the brooding statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the foot of the staircase. Now, in 2019, the scene will change symbolically too. Jameson Memorial Hall stands, but its name falls: going forward, it will be known as the Sarah Baartman Hall.

Sarah Baartman was a Khoi woman turned into a curiosity in 18th century England

Baartman, a Khoi woman sold into slavery and eventually exhibited as a curiosity in England in the late 18th Century, has long been a powerful symbolic figure in contemporary South Africa. This remarkable UCT turnabout moves the commemoration narrative. As the official UCT announcement notes, “it is fitting that Baartman, a victim of colonial inhumanity, should replace a perpetrator of colonial crimes.”

The announcement was made by incoming Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng in her December 2018 robing ceremony. It had, in fact, been in the works from 2015’s Fallism protest movement. At the time........

© Quartz