Students at the University of Cape Town are demanding the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, and a decolonisation of education.
This movement was catalysed by Chumani Maxwele’s radical protest action against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on Monday the 9th of March. This has brought to the surface the existing and justified rage of black students in the white supremacist space which is cultivated and maintained by UCT, despite its rhetoric of ‘transformation’. In our belief, the experiences seeking to be addressed by this movement are not unique to an elite institution such as UCT, but rather reflect broader dynamics of a racist society that has remained unchanged since the end of formal apartheid.
This movement is not just about the removal of a statue. The statue has great symbolic power – it is a glorifying monument to a man who was undeniably a racist, imperialist, colonialist, and misogynist. It stands at the centre of what supposedly is the ‘greatest university in Africa’. This presence, which represents South Africa’s history of dispossession and exploitation of black people, is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff. The statue is therefore the perfect embodiment of black alienation and disempowerment at the hands of UCT’s institutional culture, and was the natural starting point of this movement. The removal of the statue will not be the end of this movement, but rather the beginning of the decolonisation of the university.
Centering black pain
At the root of this struggle is the dehumanisation of black people at UCT. This dehumanisation is a violence exacted only against black people by a system that privileges whiteness. Our definition of black includes all racially oppressed people of colour. We adopt this political identity not to disregard the huge differences that exist between us, but precisely to interrogate them, identify their roots in the divide-and-conquer tactics of white supremacy, and act in unity to bring about our collective liberation. It is therefore crucial that this movement flows from the black voices and black pain that have been continuously ignored and silenced.
We want to state that we adopt an unequivocally intersectional approach to our struggle against racism. An intersectional approach takes into account that we, as black people, experience different forms of oppressions. Our understanding of race is informed by recognising other forms of oppressions such as gender, sexuality, disability, and class, so that no one should have to choose between their struggles.
With regard to white involvement, we refer to Biko:
“What I have tried to show is that in South Africa, political power has always rested with white society. Not only have the whites been guilty of being on the offensive but, by some skilful manoeuvres, they have managed to control the responses of the blacks to the provocation. Not only have they kicked the black but they have also told him how to react to the kick. For a long time the black has been listening with patience to the advice he has been receiving on how best to respond to the kick. With painful slowness he is now beginning to show signs that it is his right and duty to respond to the kick in the way he sees fit.”
We support the White Privilege Project and encourage white students to engage with that. They can contribute through conscientising their own community on campus. We also welcome their participation in radical action as a sign of solidarity, so long as that participation takes place on our terms.
On “Reverse Racism”
In line with our positions, we reject the policing of the responses of black students to their violent experiences. We want to add that we feel that the Constitution’s conception of racism is fundamentally racist because it presupposes that racism is a universal experience, thus normalising the suffering of those who actually experience racism.
“A derivation from the word ‘race’ is ‘racism’. The mere definition of the word race does not amount to racism. Racism is a set of attitudes and social mores which devalue one race in order to empower another, as well as the material power to deploy those values in the devaluation or destruction of the lives of the devalued race. Therefore those at the receiving end of racism cannot be racists. They may develop counter values which despise racists, but precisely because of racism, they lack the material power to implement those values” – Yvette Abrahams, UWC Women and Gender Studies Department.
The Constitution’s conception of racism has systematically been used to deter irrepressible urges by black South Africans to challenge racism and violence. An example of this was the Human Rights Commission ruling against the Forum for Black Journalists, when white journalists were banned from the organisation in February 2008 and this was declared unconstitutional and racist. An examination of South Africa’s political history reveals the necessity for black people to organise to the exclusion of white people in the fight against racism.
It is laughable that UCT has a building named after Biko, when Biko himself said “Those who know, define racism as discrimination by a group against another for the purposes of subjugation or maintaining subjugation. In other words one cannot be racist unless he has the power to subjugate. What blacks are doing is merely to respond to a situation in which they find themselves the objects of white racism. We are in the position in which we are because of our skin. We are collectively segregated against – what can be more logical than for us to respond as a group?”
We have noted that the UCT SRC has supported this movement, and we welcome their solidarity and appreciate the strong stance they have taken. However, we are wary of the contradictions inherent in the SRC taking up such a cause. Given that they are a structure specifically designed to work with management, having them lead puts this movement in a compromised position in which we would have to negotiate with management on their terms. To be clear, we see SRC involvement and support as crucial in this movement, but believe leadership and direction must come from students themselves. Any attempt by the SRC to co-opt the movement will thus be rejected.
Engagement with Management
We find the way in which UCT management has ‘engaged’ with this movement to be disingenuous. At no point have we been engaged directly by management. Management has responded to various media houses and has made attempts to isolate individuals from within the movement to divide us. Black outsourced workers are used to deal with protests, despite their own exploitation at the hands of the same institution, whilst management keeps itself unseen. Their releasing of statements reflects the way in which the university prioritises pacifying public opinion and defending its public image over the interests of its own black students. Our expectation is that management makes a genuine attempt at meeting with us, on our terms, which involves the removal of investigations that frame us as criminals. Meaningful engagement cannot happen if one party is under duress.
We also find it infuriating that management is attempting to open up a process of debate through their ‘Have Your Say’ campaign. Alumni have been emailed and asked for input, and notice boards have been put up near the statue to allow for comment from the broader student body. This is not meaningful engagement of black students by management, and in fact shows a complete disregard for the black experience. Management is making clear that they are not interested in alleviating black pain unless the move to do so is validated by white voices.
It is absurd that white people should have any say in whether the statue should stay or not, because they can never truly empathise with the profound violence exerted on the psyche of black students. Our pain and anger is at the centre of why the statue is being questioned, so this pain and anger must be responded to in a way that only we can define. It must be highlighted that the push for dialogue around the statue reflects the disturbing normalisation of colonisation and white supremacy at UCT. That the presence of Rhodes is seen as debatable shows that management does not take seriously the terrible violence against black people historically and presently.
Finally, it is revealing that while black protestors are threatened with and are facing investigations, the racist backlash from white students has been met with silence by the university.
Objectives of the Movement
Our immediate demands are that we receive a date for the removal of the statue from campus grounds, and that the university investigation of student protesters be withdrawn. We find it unacceptable that management has presented a date on which council will discuss the statue; we reject the notion that the university has any decision to make here. Our position is clear and will not be hampered by bureaucratic processes which management hides behind. Our pain should be the only factor taken into consideration, and therefore the statue’s removal from UCT must be a non-negotiable, inevitable outcome.
Our long-term goals include:
- The removal of statues and plaques commemorating racists; The renaming of buildings from names of racist or average white people to black historical figures; The re-evaluation of artworks which exoticise Africa, poverty, and the black experience and are predominantly done by white artists; The recognition of suppressed black history relevant to the institution such as slave graves on campus, and black people who have contributed to the development of the university.
- The implementation of an Afro-centric curriculum. By this we mean treating African discourses as the point of departure and only examining Western traditions in so far as they are relevant to our own experience; Financial and research support of black academics and staff; Radically changing the representation of black lecturers across faculties; Revising the limitations on access to senior positions for black academics.
- An admissions policy which explicitly includes race and which prioritises black applicants; Improved academic support programs; A meaningful interrogation of why black students are most often at the brunt of academic exclusion; The development of an improved financial aid system; Improved facilities which deal with sexual assault, as well as facilities which help black students deal with the psychological trauma as a result of racism.
- The end of victimisation and intimidation of workers; Challenging the system of outsourcing which diminishes UCT’s accountability towards workers and gives rise to worker vulnerability; The implementation of support structures for workers similar to those offered to students for sexual assault and mental health, as well as access to services dealing with labour, family and housing issues.
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