Look into those cold stone eyes

The removal of the University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes, after it sat for so many years in the sun, has been received with great merriment. One would hope, though, that the statue’s felling will not be an end in itself: a deeper fight for transformation is desperately needed in higher education institutions.

Two decades after the advent of democracy, transformation in higher education has been sluggish. Rhodes is gone but what now for UCT transformation? What will this mean for the university’s programme of change?

There are so many paradoxes in the statue saga. It may happen that governors who do not support change lead in calling for the removal of the statues or changing of names.

They may be fervent because they know people could forget that the battle for real transformation would only have started. Those who are anti-transformation are aware that some protagonists will forget about other struggles when Rhodes or George V has been banished to some museum. The trap is that some may forget about other struggles, should the effigies be replaced by other heroes, maybe a Jafta Masemola, a Makhanda or a Frances Baard.

Don’t be dissuaded
Yet the removal of these symbols should not dissuade people from fighting for real change in institutions of higher learning. It is the ingrained cultures that defeat the agenda of change. They are dangerous because we might not physically see them every day, as we do Cecil or George. There is subtle colonial culture that marginalises emerging black talent and wants to maintain the status quo. University officials may be loudest in talking about change while they obfuscate the emergence of new black academics.

Transformation is difficult in the face of antagonistic cultures. Black academics suffer in silence most of the time because they are trying hard to ensure that there is harmony.

Some factors manifest themselves in various ways. In one campus where a colleague worked, he witnessed how race determined which students were assigned to which supervisors. He said there would be meetings where new postgraduate students, both master’s and doctoral, were to be allotted to supervisors. There was an awful, unwritten rule that black faculty was supposed to mentor black students and white colleagues could select whoever they wanted.

Transformation routes are failing black academics, who soon learn the more things change in higher education the more they remain the same.

Leaving a vacuum in their wake
In many institutions we have seen promising leaders who appear to carry the right flag and politics of transformation; we have observed illustrious black leaders in some of these universities, but they tend to leave these positions without having changed much – they leave behind people who cry out, condemning the status quo that pervades.

These leaders become overwhelmed by an intransigent culture and an atmosphere resistant to change. Management’s colour can be changed, but old ways can persist.

Many of us would love to see the statues of great people in South Africa standing tall on our campuses. We had great people who played huge roles in the liberation of this country – Charlotte Maxeke, Lillian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Ruth First and thousands of others. Tomorrow we could have statues of some of these heroines; this would be a fair representation of our history, as we learn more about those who freed us from the manacles of bondage. But it would defeat the purpose to move statues but leave unchanged the conditions in the boardrooms that run institutions. One would hope that the removal of statues and the changing of names of some campuses would herald real changes and meaningful transformation.

Universities still need to demonstrate a concerted effort to move towards curricula that reflect the African world. This should make them unique.

There has never been a time better than this to balance the numbers of black and white academics. Institutions can do more to lead in the move to support and sustain black academics who join the university ranks.

An important reflection
Higher education institutions should reflect the equitable society to which we all aspire.

Students need more chances to enter universities, but so many factors are hurdles in the way of their realising these dreams. Universities should work with disadvantaged schools in particular because many students find, when they arrive at universities in their first year, that they were never prepared for the rigour of university study in their schools. Higher education institutions can address this by working closely with schools, rather than merely excluding students who fail. Those who fail join the unemployed.

Institutions also need to work closely with the government to ensure massification and that a lack of financial resources does not close doors for the children of the poor. These institutions also need to learn that the country needs graduates who are ready for the workplace immediately after completing their studies.

Frequently, employers complain of graduates who are not ready for the workplace. Our society needs graduates who will not only look for employment but will create work for themselves and others.

Yes, maybe we should decimate the statues of imperialists and colonialists who demeaned the indigenous people in the bleak South African past. We should acknowledge those who paved the way for this present. It would be lethal, though, to end here. Cecil’s stony eyes may disappear, but we could be stuck with institutions that never alter their negative institutional cultures.

Many will ululate if the death of the cold statues paves the way for real changes, but bigger statues remain in people’s minds. Hacking down and defacing monuments are the easiest parts of the job. The strongest of mallets will not reach deep into the souls where colonial statues reside.

Professor Vuyisile Msila is the head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance. The views expressed here are his own

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday