Colonialist statues are a mote in varsity students’ eyes

Waves of pickets, protest marches and sleep-ins have swept the campuses of South African universities since the beginning of March.

Students at universities, such as Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes, want transformation in higher education. They want Eurocentrism to be wiped off campuses.

They are demanding that the names of physical structures and their curriculum reflect black African culture. 

They have had public debates, meetings with university management and have fervently used traditional and social media to promote their cause. Their demands have spread to city streets where regular citizens in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria also want colonial-era statues there removed.

Their campaigns have even received international support in the form of statements of solidarity from the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, Oxford University in Britain and the University of the West Indies. 

What is the attraction? We asked four students who are active in student movements to explain it to us:

Pinda Mofokeng, provincial secretary of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) and a second-year development studies student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)

M&G: Why is defacing a statue at UCT and at UKZN the perfect vehicle to get a message across?

“The reality is Sasco is pushing the agenda of transformation … Sasco is taking responsibility for defacing the [George V] statue [on Howard College campus]. 

The simple matter is that it is a symbol of colonialism that is visible to everyone. Take the position of the statues, their posture, an arrogant posture, the way it symbolises power and authority. When you walk past it, it is like you are bowing to the statue. When you see it you are automatically reminded of the past. Psychologically, it affects you. That is the first thing that needs to be attacked.”

M&G: Why are these protests happening at such high intensity now?

“The conditions at the time were right. If you look around at the disparities between the rich whites and the poor blacks, it’s expanding. Black people, the majority of South Africans, are in a state of despair. 

“If you read comments on all stories and social media, if you look at the amount of insults from white people against black people, it’s a shame, and black people internalise that and there comes a time when enough is enough. But, as with most revolutions, we wait for someone to light the fire. What happened at UCT, that was the thing that lit the fire.”

Sanele Ntshingana, a member of the Black Student Movement and a third-year politics and journalism student at Rhodes

M&G: Why is defacing a statue at UCT and at UKZN the perfect vehicle to get a message across?

“We’ve been having conversations about transformation in lectures like anthropology and privately with our friends and lecturers, but they never transferred to a bigger platform. They have [remained as] whisperings and murmurs on campus until now.

There have now been enough micro-aggressions that students have experienced and this is also the right political climate. 

UCT set the political climate, not national politics, not Parliament. UCT set the tone. There have been lots of talks about transformation but these happened in private places. 

We were just waiting for a trigger. The trigger was UCT but it wasn’t completely inspired by UCT. They set a political scene and Rhodes followed.”

M&G: Why are these protests happening at such high intensity now?

“Removing a statue at a university is a very important step towards the whole integrity of transformation. Statues are very symbolic. They have power. It’s a psychological thing.

“Removing them will be a thing that stays in people’s minds. If a statue is removed it sort of changes how people view their spaces. It will create new meanings to people when you remove the symbols.”

Simamkele Dlakavu, a member of TransformWits and studying towards a master’s in politics at the University of the Witwatersrand

M&G: Why is defacing a statue at UCT and at UKZN the perfect vehicle to get a message across?

“With TransformWits, all the students come from a certain ideological perspective. We view the rainbow nation as flawed and we don’t think we have done much to change this country, either as black workers, as students or as leaders.

“It isn’t necessarily [the best vehicle]. Ours was a very tame approach in the sense that we followed the right processes on paper by sending a memorandum [to management] and engaging with the students internally. 

“The students at Rhodes and UCT took a militant approach to get [management] to listen to them.”

M&G: Why are these protests happening at such high intensity now?

“You can’t isolate what has been happening on campus from other forms of resistance that have been taking place in South Africa. People are starting to be more disillusioned about the [notion of the] rainbow nation. 

“South Africa is not the miracle country that avoided a civil war, neither is it peaceful and good. 

The year 1994 [and the first democratic elections] didn’t achieve uhuru for us. There’s this whole idea of economic freedom and people feeling like they need to take their country back. 

“The cracks really started to show when Marikana happened and then there have been all the racists incidents that have been happening around the country at the hands of young people. We are seeing a dismantling of this narrative that born-frees are not racist.”

Keleboga Ramaru, a member of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and a fourth-year student in gender and transformation at UCT.

M&G: Why is defacing a statue at UCT and at UKZN the perfect vehicle to get a message across?

“I don’t think there are problems in higher education that are necessarily unique to a particular varsity. They probably don’t affect universities in the same way but exist in varying degrees. Beyond that, they remain collective problems.

“The throwing of shit on the [Cecil John Rhodes] statue echoed the sentiments of a lot of students and prompted the courage of students who had been shot down and belittled for a while and whose voices had not been heard. 

“Since that happened, we’ve been having debates about symbolism, gender and intersectionality … [and] what our academic vision is.”

M&G: Why are these protests happening at such high intensity now?

“Previously, you had all these groups organising in isolation but now we are regrouping and making an assessment about how all our struggles are interlinked as workers, as students and as academic and administrative staff. 

On campus, black academics have been coming on to the campus and having seminars all week. We are moving forward with a consolidated mandate from all parties involved. 

What’s also good is that we’re seeing things happening in Cape Town: Capetonians are moving the conversation beyond UCT and having it in the bigger context of the city, around things like spatial divisions in the central business district.”

On Saturday UCT released a statement saying its senate “has voted overwhelmingly in favour of recommending to council that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be moved when council holds its special sitting on Wednesday, April 8 2015”.

There were 181 votes in favour of the proposal, one against it and three abstentions. 

The proposal states the senate recommends the Rhodes statue be removed from UCT campus permanently; that it be handed over to the government heritage authorities; and should be boarded up with immediate effect until it is removed from the campus, according to the statement.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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