The struggle for transformation and decolonisation at South African universities has found contemporary and historical reverberations elsewhere, especially in the United States.
Protests in the US under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter have resonated strongly with this generation of South African students, with respect to both the racial realities and the economic inequalities that continue to haunt both societies. In addition, the symbols displayed in South African social media and other forms of popular communication suggest a strong affinity with Black Lives Matter.
The work of healing relationships has become of paramount concern at universities across South Africa. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) several steps have been taken to initiate this work, including the establishment of a reconciliation process. Among the wider UCT community, including staff, students and administrators, the dominant sentiments expressed in the wake of last year’s university disruptions continue to be anxiety, trepidation and both hope and dread in equal measure.
These feelings are arguably replicated on many university campuses. Although institution leaders do meet to discuss the protests with each other and with government leaders, each university is ultimately responsible for how it deals with the issues raised by protesters.
The student protests began in March 2015 when a UCT student threw human faeces at the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Students rallied to join the call to end colonial influence at UCT, noting that although Rhodes had donated the land upon which the university was built, it was land that had been taken from indigenous Africans. In the weeks that followed, first the UCT senate and then the council overwhelmingly approved the removal of the statue, which took place in early April 2015. Protests continued across the country, however, later focusing on the call for tuition-free higher education, along with other issues of transformation such as decolonising the university curriculum and increasing the proportion of black academics on campus.
Underlying the issue of reparation and healing is the lingering question that has bedevilled South Africa since it embraced a democratic constitutional framework in 1994: namely, how to come to terms, individually and collectively, with the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. This means coming to terms with the legacy at a fundamental, organic level, beyond the grand public exercise of forgiveness as demonstrated in South Africa’s much-admired Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the late 1990s.
The TRC was an important initial step in moving South Africa from authoritarianism to democracy. As mandated in the epilogue to the 1993 Constitution: “The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.
“These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.”
The legacy of the TRC and its role in reconciling South Africans has been much debated. One of the severe limitations of the TRC was the manner in which it designated victim status, in the end only considering the testimony of 22 000 victims. So even though under international law apartheid had been deemed a crime against humanity, the methodology adopted by the TRC reduced that crime to individual acts of gross violation of human rights.
The systemic infrastructure of subordination, racism and oppression was left largely unexamined. Therefore millions of victims who were subjected to the daily degradations of colonialism and apartheid, were not treated as victims for the purposes of the TRC. The platitudes of the “rainbow nation” probably could not erase the pain and trauma for them. It is those millions of victims and their offspring who continue to bear the scars of colonialism and apartheid.
It has become clear that there are a range of reasons why South Africans are not reconciled. A primary one is the level of economic inequality that continues to plague society, resulting in the perpetuation of apartheid-era social and economic spaces. These unequal spaces affect every institution; none are immune from its effects.
Take universities, and particularly UCT, which was a “white” university under apartheid. Even though there is now considerable diversity in the community, especially among students but less so in the teaching staff, the kinds and levels of engagement suggest that the task of reparation and healing is far from over.
This unfinished agenda – on an institutional and national level – after two decades of democracy should not discourage us. The task of reparation and healing may take centuries to be addressed. Take, for example, the situation in the US where, more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, universities including Brown, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are only now coming to terms with their roles in the slave trade and taking definite steps about it.
A good illustration is Georgetown University (a Jesuit institution). Last year the president of Georgetown University, John J DeGioia, initiated a comprehensive effort to make amends for Georgetown’s role in the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. He committed the university to a range of options to address the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation in the US generally and Georgetown University in particular.
One action was the removal from two buildings of the names of two of the university’s 19th-century presidents – both of whom had played an advisory role in the sale of slaves owned by the Jesuit order.
The buildings were temporarily renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.
Georgetown University also set up a working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation, consisting of administrators, faculty and students, which issued a report in 2016.
Its recommendations included an apology to the descendants of the sold slaves; the further renaming of buildings; memorialising Georgetown University’s role in the slave trade, including in its research and teaching; and engaging the entire university in projects of diversity and inclusiveness. It also announced that all descendants of the slaves would receive free tuition at Georgetown University.
UCT is also seeking to address issues of colonialism and apartheid. In November 2016 we embarked on an agreement between the university management and students to establish an Institutional Reconciliation and Truth Commission (IRTC), in response to students’ requests for a university version of the TRC. An IRTC steering committee, comprising representatives from all the constituencies of UCT, was established to develop the terms of reference as well as the appointment and mandate of the IRTC commissioners.
The terms of reference will roughly focus on two issues. The first is an analysis of the so-called Shackville protests at UCT in February 2016, when students who were protesting over the limited availability of on-campus housing set up a shack in solidarity with those who live in informal settlements.
They engaged in violent conduct, including setting fire to university vehicles and the office of the vice-chancellor. Such an analysis will have reference to historical, institutional and national factors, as well as the clemency that was granted by UCT to students who had participated in such unlawful activity during the protests.
The second issue relates to the institutional culture at UCT, as well as transformation, decolonisation, discrimination, identity, disability and other matters that have generated conflict on campus.
The IRTC has the possibility of engaging the entire UCT community in a meaningful dialogue about the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and its impact on UCT. If conducted thoughtfully, the IRTC also has the possibility of inspiring all to make the commitment to working towards the fundamental changes that will lead to reparations and healing.
Professor Penelope Andrews is dean of the faculty of law at the University of Cape Town