On Saturday the University of Cape Town (UCT) said an executive decision had been made to grant amnesty for all #RhodesMustFall protest activities. No disciplinary charges or punitive action would be lodged against any staff or students involved in protest action at the campus between March 9 and May 18.
This is a significant victory for the #RhodesMustFall movement and all those involved in transformative work at the institution. These developments have given us an opportunity to reflect on issues of institutional culture at the university.
There are key moments in the development of the #RhodesMustFall movement that have shifted the discourse and rules of engagement among different stakeholders at the university in relation to its decolonisation.
On March 9, UCT student Chumani Maxwele protested against the presence of the Cecil John Rhodes statue and its pride of place on the campus. It is no accident and is symbolic that Maxwele used human faeces to deface the statue. His protest made visible the harsh lived realities of many black communities from which our students hail.
From our involvement in different ways with #RhodesMustFall, it has been clear from the outset that the students’ struggles are tied to the struggles of the oppressed communities in Cape Town and other similar communities across the country in which the legacies of colonialism and apartheid are still deeply felt. In addition, the movement has had global reach, receiving messages of support from across the world, an indication that this struggle has resonance beyond our immediate context.
Modes of engagement
Another key moment was on March 16, when students staged a walkout from a meeting convened by university management on heritage, signage and symbolism on campus. The walkout was symbolic for a number of reasons. The process of entering into a dialogue on whether to continue to honour colonial figures such as Rhodes undermined the experience of exclusion and pain felt by black staff and students who continue to be “othered” in colonial ways. It sent a clear message on the limits of certain modes of engagement that, as their starting point, position black students and staff as “the problem”.
UCT Student Representative Council president Ramabina Mahapa said at the time: “For too long the narrative at this university has silenced the voices of black students and black history. This university continues to celebrate, in its institutional symbolism, figures in South African history who are undisputedly white supremacists.” He also posed the questions: “Whose heritage are we preserving? Who created the symbolism, for whom and for what?”
As Mahapa reminds us, we need to question the basis on which discussions about transformation are convened, and to consider who sets the agenda and rules of engagement. It matters who controls the narrative. This is about power relations and who is likely to benefit from dialogue, whose voices are heard and who is recognised.
What the call for dialogue by those in power misses is that some voices remain silenced in the very process of engagement. This issue of silencing was emotively foregrounded in another key moment, when students appropriated a university assembly to explicitly address their experiences of marginalisation at the institution. The students powerfully orchestrated the event by setting the agenda so that it became about issues of alienation, rather than an “objective” debate about institutional culture. Instead of accommodating existing privileges, the students spoke about their own experiences and those of black staff.
The historic fall of the Rhodes statue was a moment that crystallised the shift in power relations. It marked the beginning of a new narrative about the politics of space and belonging. Yet this shift has been met with overwhelming resistance even from people who consider themselves advocates for transformation.
From opinion pieces in the press to reactions on social media, as well as in both formal and informal conversations on campus, we’ve seen that the students in the #RhodesMustFall movement are depicted as unruly, troublesome, irresponsible, lazy and self-interested. It is ironic that they are cast in the very roles they are attempting to challenge and resist.
To the contrary, our interactions with the students have excited us as teachers and academics. We have witnessed a high level of intellectual debate on social change. In a series of conversations facilitated by the movement we witnessed the brightest minds deeply engaged in scholarly work, pushing the boundaries of theory and knowledge.
The students invited academics to speak on topics related to practices of decolonisation such as intersecting identities and oppression linked to race, class, gender and sexualities, black consciousness, the recognition of African philosophies and knowledge, as well as symbolism and representation. By making the link between academic projects and real life, the students are locating the university in the place where it rightly belongs. They are challenging all academics to consider our role in society as one that is not devoid of politics nor removed from everyday experiences.
Many of the students who are at the forefront of the movement and who identify as black feminists have also shaped the narrative of the movement itself and its positioning in relation to misogyny, patriarchy and white supremacy. As Mbali Matandela, a fourth-year UCT student, states: “What I hope for is that people will look back at this movement one day and see how a small group of black feminists changed the politics of a black consciousness space – a space that has previously excluded these populations. They will remember how black women and members of the LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual] community became valued members of one of the most important movements in the university’s history.”
A dedicated space
Nevertheless, political action is also risky. Establishing equal terms of engagement is tricky in a context in which protest action is sometimes necessary. Getting involved in decolonisation accentuates the vulnerability of those who are already alienated by the system. In addition to discourses of deviance, students have been subjected to intimidation and threats by many who oppose transformation within and outside the university. Under these circumstances, #RhodesMustFall’s claiming of a dedicated space on campus becomes even more important.
Just as the movement was never just about the statue, the occupation of the Bremner building was never simply about the removal of the statue. Over a period of three weeks, students occupied the central administrative building of the university. #RhodesMustFall’s occupation has now moved to Avenue House, another administrative building on the university’s lower campus. Their occupation is a symbolic act of claiming space at an institution they experience as alienating.
Spaces are political in that they establish the contexts in which the politics of belonging and exclusion are acted out. They allow for identity formation and expression, participation, building of solidarity and consciousness-raising. Universities are spaces in which identities are necessarily contested and shaped, and new ways of relating are forged. When certain cultural hegemonies hold sway and determine certain ways of thinking and acting, it becomes difficult to exercise these freedoms.
Occupation is a political act. It recentres the balance of power for those occupying marginal spaces, both physically and symbolically. It begins to redefine the terms on which a conversation about decolonisation is made possible. We see it as enabling students to construct their own narrative, away from one that positions them as unreasonable and irrational, and towards an imagining of the university as a space of belonging.
Dr Shose Kessi is a senior lecturer in the psychology department at UCT. Professor Floretta Boonzaier is an associate professor in the psychology department. Both are members of the UCT black academic caucus. The views expressed are their own