Lessons from the Rhodes statue’s fall

Eleventh hour: The gigantic sculpture of Nelson Mandela was installed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria 19 years after democracy. (Supplied)

Eleventh hour: The gigantic sculpture of Nelson Mandela was installed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria 19 years after democracy. (Supplied)

I was in the Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town on the evening of March 25 when the institution held a two-hour university assembly to debate the Rhodes statue and transformation at UCT. The hall was filled with students, faculty and workers, as well as members the public and representatives of various media houses. It was a powerful meeting conducted by the student leadership of the #RhodesMustFall movement and is available – unedited – on YouTube.

In those two hours and 12 minutes of debates and deliberations by students, there was no mention of the government or the ruling party, or any other political party for that matter. The majority of these black students, are born-frees. They carry no burdens of history, unlike my generation, which was born into apartheid. The message in their political actions to do with transformation at UCT and in universities in South Africa was clear. They have lost hope and confidence in the government.

The closest they came to any reference to the government was when, nearly two hours into the discussion, Rorisang Mosedi, a second-year commerce student, started his address by saying: “I think there are dangerous precedents that were set by Mandela and his leadership,  that everything that needs to do with black pain needs negotiation as to whether it is valid or not.”

He got the loudest applause of the evening.

Hands off
The government’s response the following day came through Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa, who said – as headlined in the Cape Times – “Hands off Rhodes statue”.

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, former vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was on Tim Modise’s PowerBreakfast radio show on Wednesday, April 8, talking about university transformation. He said: “We are in government, but we are not in power. We have elected a government here by 62% majority, not to be debating issues all the time. It’s for them to be articulating the aspirations of the majority of the nation, and the majority of the nation is saying: ‘We don’t want these statues any more; they don’t represent us’. They are almost against the Constitution, that they should be in our face every day ... Instead of entering into this debate, we should be removing these statues. That is all. We must have a programme to remove these statues.”

The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, also took to the radio. On PowerBreak with Thabiso Tema and Hajra Omarjee, he addressed the transformation of the universities, which is part of the mandate of his ministry. I was one of the callers and I told him that I am South African, African and black, with a PhD – but the universities cannot absorb us black South Africans. They say: “There are no black South Africans with PhDs.”

The minister’s response was to say that he was aware that there are gatekeepers in the universities, especially the former white institutions, and he added: “I, too, have gone through that, being racially discriminated against, at the University of Natal.”

Transformation delated by ANC
This is the point that Makgoba was making: “We are in government, but we are not in power.” We are not in charge. I wanted to tell Nzimande that it is not academic freedom or university freedom that runs South Africa; it is the ANC that is governing the country. Transformation in the interests of “a better for life all” – for the African and black child, the intellectual, scholar, academic, workers, members of the middle class, the youth and the masses – has been delayed by the very leaders we elected to liberate our country from colonialism and apartheid.

It’s 21 years later; get over it. Transform this country. I can no longer blame any white person. I blame the ANC. It has marginalised us from the very jobs we are equipped and trained to do, to bring real transformation to universities and South Africa as a whole – in the arts, culture and heritage of South Africa, and by virtue of our practical work experience in the workplace, our scholarship and expertise.

Take, for example, the site of the Union Buildings. In the 21 years of our liberation, nothing has been done to ensure that the statues and grounds of the Union Buildings reflect our liberation. I do not speak of the inside of the buildings, to which few members of the elite of our society have access. I speak of the spaces accessible to the millions of citizens and tourists who visit this seat of government daily. What they see and the pictures they take away with them are of the colonial and apartheid statues.

It feels and looks like Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and now President Jacob Zuma were never at the Union Buildings. There is little that addresses their presence and power there, except, of course, the recent gigantic Mandela statue installed at the 11th hour of the 19th year of our freedom.

My empirical work experience and scholarship are in African history, the arts, culture and heritage of South Africa, and I hold a legitimate doctorate.

Barely transformed
These areas of South African life and work are barely transformed. They are found lacking in comparison with international standards. I worked for the heritage department of Robben Island Museum, the island being a world heritage site, from 2000 to 2003, and during that time we conceptualised various tours in which the prices of tickets differed according to whether the visitors were foreigners and where they came from. For example, European and American tourists would pay a higher fee and tourists from the African continent a lower fee. South African citizens would pay the least. But the powers that be at national government did not approve this.

Twenty-one years into our freedom, this has not been adopted. South African citizens visiting Robben Island pay the same as foreigners whose currencies (the euro, the pound, the dollar) are much stronger than the rand.

Last month I was in Dakar, Senegal, where I visited Gorée Island to see how it compares with Robben Island, the subject of my PhD and the subject of a book I am writing. As an adult African resident of a country on the African continent, I had to pay CFA 2?700 (about R53). The resident of Senegal who was accompanying me paid CFA 1? 500 (about R30). On top of that, for the same trip, including a half-hour ferry from Port Autonome de Dakar to Gorée, I had to pay two taxes, which added up to CFA 1?000 (about R20): one tax for the Gorée municipality and the other is for the culture ministry. (The ferry from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town to Robben Island also takes about 30 minutes.)

Similar arrangements exist in Ghana and Tanzania, where I did fieldwork in 2011. At the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, a memorial park that is the resting place of the founding president of Ghana and his wife, Ghanaian citizens do not pay the same fees as foreigners, whether from other African countries, Europe, or elsewhere, to see and learn their arts, culture, history and heritage.

Before I could embark on my fieldwork research in Tanzania, I had to visit the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology in Dar es Salaam, which provided me with research clearance for $300 (about R3?500 in 2011).

Just imagine all the revenue South Africa loses annually because our liberation in the past 20 years has not transformed these areas of research – African knowledge production, including indigenous knowledge systems, the arts, culture and heritage – that should bring tangible economic benefits to African and black youth, the majority of whom remain unemployed in the Cape Flats, Ga-Rankuwa, Tembisa, Galeshewe, Gugulethu, Tlhakong … the list is endless.

These are our struggles. Yet, when the African speaks about our struggles, we are told we are being counter-revolutionary. How can we be counter-revolutionary when we have been voting the ruling party into power for the past 20 years? We cannot be neutral under these circumstances; it is in this context that we will continue to mourn the dearth of critical debate in the ANC about genuine transformation.

So, since 1994, the African and black South African scholar and intellectual has fought two struggles on two fronts: first, with the white liberals in our universities and in the workplace, about whom Steve Bantu Biko taught us; second, with the black liberals in our government. You expect us to continue to vote for you simply because we are African or black? Or is it our ethnicity, like that of the deputy president of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, that is not respected?

There is an ethical conflict here – and it is a social justice issue – regardless of the burden of history that we feel our generation carries and which makes it feel it must vote for the ANC. The ruling party has lost empathy for the African and black majority, and this is a time bomb waiting to be ignited.

The current generation of UCT students, those who decided that Rhodes must fall, moved ahead without dependence on the government or even the involvement of the government in this matter of the colonial and apartheid heritage. They do not carry the same burden of history as my generation. Be warned: they will not think twice about voting for a party other the ANC.

What is the lesson to be learnt from #RhodesMustFall at UCT?

Change is brought by the people, not the government. Apartheid crumbled because of the people, not government – not PW Botha, not FW de Klerk. We have empirical evidence to show that, if we want transformation to happen in every aspect of our lives, we must do much more than depend on the powers that be. Look at the effect of the UCT students and their powerful collective voice – Rhodes has fallen.

Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi works for the Committee on Higher Education. He writeshere as an activist and the views expressed do not represent those of any organisation



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