The #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town has spread to other universities in South Africa, sparking debates about institutionalised racism and sexism. The campaign seeks to decolonize our universities.
As a former University of Cape Town student, I came face to face with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes many times, sadly, unaware of what the bold figure standing before me meant. My ignorance was unsurprising, institutional power makes a deliberate choice to cleanse figures like Rhodes so that Black people unknowingly accept them without questioning or fighting their presence.
As a science student at the university, I was confronted with a curriculum that was so white and Western you would swear Africans had never contributed to the sciences. Africans only appeared as victims of malaria and HIV or as assistants to ‘great’ White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied scientists.
Our lecturers were mostly white and male. The few Black lecturers we had were always mocked for their accents or their lectures hardly ever attended because their lecturing style was not “appealing” enough, both by white and black students. All this in a university geographically located in Africa and in a country with majority black people. No wonder sometime early this year, when my Journalism Studies lecturer asked what I thought of UCT, the first thing that came to mind and mouth was, “I didn’t like it. I never felt any connection to the place.”
The #RhodesMustFall movement at UCT began when student Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes located at the centre of the university. The movement spread to other universities including Rhodes University, where students began calling for the name of the university to be changed. Students at the University of KwaZulu Natal covered a statue of King George V with white paint and students at Wits held a transformation talk.
“Black people bending over backwards to accommodate whiteness”
Defenses of why the statue of Rhodes shouldn’t be removed (and why Black students should stop being so angry) have come in far and wide. But, no amount of belittling, and calling the cause invalid, has deterred the students. Instead, they are building a stronger and wider movement.
Some may ask why now. But why not now? Students have been watching, for 21 years, Black people bending over backwards to accommodate whiteness in the country of their birth. Students are using the Rhodes statue, as a unifying figure to speak back (and black) to power! Finally!
It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of UCT’s senate recently voted for the removal of the statue. But what does this mean? What does waiting on an overwhelmingly white and male senate to decide on the fate of the statue mean? Should Black students wait for this decision – a decision that I feel will function to pacify the voices of the students or should they take matters into their own hands.
“We can’t breathe”
The #RhodesMustFall movement – along with the Black Students Movement at Rhodes University and the TransformWits movement at Wits, and other growing black consciousness movements on campuses in South Africa – is important and valid. Not only because it highlights the violence that these colonial figures and names carry with them, but as a starting point to finally decolonizing our universities, minds and society. To finally strip white privilege bare. To finally begin dismantling institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. To finally start speaking our pain, without shame or fear of backlash and finally labelling correctly what imperialists like Rhodes, and others like him, were – white supremacist patriarchs that unashamedly massacred black people and looted our natural resources without any regard for the people Rhodes referred to as “niggers”. And those who reduce these movements to just the statue, are failing to see the wider picture these students are trying to paint.
Assata Olugbala Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party, now living in exile in Cuba, recently wrote a moving letter of solidarity to the UCT SRC:
“[Freedom never comes], until the Afrikan slave uses his force to break the shackles and obtain emancipation for himself,” she wrote. “You and your comrades have hands. Use them. Pull down the statue. If it doesn’t come down, think of something else.”
Black students across the country are crying, “We can’t breathe”. And these movements are an effort to break free from colonial shackles that still bind black bodies to this stay. What will happen if we do not listen to these cries?
Originally published on Wits Vuvuzela: