Protests for transformation in South African universities have been gaining support from universities around the world.
The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) student-initiated Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been gaining traction across South African and international campuses, with similar protests spreading to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Messages of support have also been coming in from as far afield as Oxford University, the University of the West Indies and the University of California, Berkeley.
Alex Hotz, a member of the UCT student representative council (SRC) and the UCT Left Students’ Forum, says students at UKZN have defaced the King George V statue that foregrounds the university’s Howard College campus in Durban. Pictures circulating on social media, with the hashtag #GeorgeMustFall, depict the statue splashed with white paint and draped with a banner bearing the words “End white privilege”.
The campaign’s momentum, which has revived calls to change the name of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, has also drawn solidarity from students at campuses such as the University of the Witwatersrand, where there have been demonstrations to change the “Eurocentric” curriculum.
Real problems in focus
Thembani Onceya, a member of the Rhodes-based Black Student Movement, says that in addition to pursuing the name change issue unapologetically, the body has also set its sights on the immediate problems facing underprivileged students at Rhodes.
“For example, there is an issue with accommodation. When this term ends and the university closes, there are students who won’t be able to afford the transport to Mthatha or elsewhere, especially when you consider that in two weeks they’ll have to be back here. Some of them are supported by [state] pension grants. What does the institution say about these people?”
Onceya says that following a demonstration, the handing over of a memorandum and a subsequent meeting with the vice-chancellor, an agreement has been reached about housing a number of students who cannot afford to go home.
Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University, says the recent protests at the campus have “changed the way in which discussions are framed. Whereas before, discussions have framed transformation as the problem, such as the issue of not having enough black staff, now the racism of the institution and the real problems within it are in focus.”
Benjamin Fogel, a former Rhodes student, characterised the culture of student protest while he was there as “reactionary”.
“I was at Rhodes from 2009 to 2012. In that time, the only protest of significance I saw, in terms of numbers, was when the kitchen staff went on strike and then the students protested about the quality of the food. This is the kind of student culture you have there. It was like: ‘We don’t really care about your rights; we just want our food.’”
Fogel, who witnessed the groundswell of protest in Grahamstown last week, says there was a gathering attended by more than 1 500 people, most of whom were in favour of changing the university’s name.
But the current wave of mobilisation does have antecedents. People say an organisation called the Students for Social Justice existed at some point and then petered out. But as Onceya explains, the Black Student Movement may have been established in solidarity with the UCT’s Rhodes Must Fall movement but it draws its inspiration from the consciousness that student organisations had during the apartheid years.
“It’s a way of sharing our experiences about an institutional culture that alienates people from other backgrounds … If Rhodes Must Fall, then the name of this institution must change.”
Protecting ‘brand UCT’
In contrast with the active role played by UCT’s SRC, the response of the Rhodes SRC has been bland. Its call for government intervention and a referendum has seen it being lampooned by students as part of a “depoliticisation campaign happening on campus”.
The government, too, has been standoffish, with Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa commenting that any entity that wants to remove a statue needs to undertake a 30-day consultation process, including presentations to the authorities and comments from affected and interested parties.
UCT’s Hotz says a Wednesday evening meeting that included university workers, students and administrative and academic staff was taken over and then chaired by students, who read out racist comments that had been sent to people involved in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
“It has been so easy to reprimand students for throwing shit on the statue, but there has been no condemnation of these statements of racism,” says Hotz.
“We do not believe that there is a process of investigating these comments. They’ve been saying they are doing a lot of things but the university is merely concerned with protecting ‘brand UCT’.”
‘Reject Rhodes, reject Mandela’
Ashwin Desai, a former student activist and a professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg, says: “Every generation sets itself new tasks. In the universities in the 1980s and the 1990s, it was about getting in. It was about deracialising residences. We hardly took statues and monuments seriously… Black students fought the structures and were expelled and so on.
“This generation is confronting what they are being taught at lectures, the ethos of these institutions. What I wonder is if they have the capacity to realise what they are taking on.”
Desai said a rejection of Rhodes amounts to a rejection of Mandela, because Mandela “rescued” Rhodes. “The Mandela-Rhodes scholarship gave Rhodes legitimacy. At the launch of that scholarship, Mandela said something like: ‘Rhodes would be happy with how we are running the economy.’
“A rejection of Rhodes is a rejection of the negotiated settlement that gave rise to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC said it was only interested in what happened during apartheid, when the contours of South African history were shaped by what happened way before 1948. Mandela et al, in their zeal to win over the white minority, allowed entities like De Beers, the manifestation of Rhodes’s legacy, not to come to the TRC and account.”
Desai said there is still a need for students to succinctly articulate what they mean when they refer to wanting a “black curriculum”.
Simamkele Dlakavu of Transform Wits said when students challenge the curriculum at the institution it is because “to learn about Africa, you have to go outside the institution. Western political thought is still being promoted. The only black thinkers that we are being taught are Fanon and Biko, which leaves a number of important theorists out and this is tied to the demographics of who is teaching.”
She says the movement to transform campuses cannot be seen in isolation but as part of the cracks that have been showing in South African society since the Marikana massacre.