Newsmaker – Chumani Maxwele: No regrets for throwing faeces at Rhodes statue

2015-03-29 15:00

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Chumani Maxwele’s decision was not an impulsive one.

The sight of the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes had pained him for years as he went about life at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

But even he never expected that throwing faeces at the statue would have had such enormous repercussions. However, he has no regrets.

The “student spring” is long overdue, insists the 30-year-old, who was born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.

“What’s been happening here is that we’re giving birth to new politics. I’m amazed by black and white students who have been here, occupying that building for eight days. It’s special.”

Maxwele’s reaction is not surprising. He’s a follower of Steve Biko and Afro-Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who believed in and advocated for change.

“How do you decolonise Africa? Fanon made it clear decolonisation must happen through violence. I think it is highly unlikely South Africa can avoid this.”

What many South Africans like to consider our country’s miraculous transition to democracy in 1994, Maxwele labels a failure.

“We didn’t experience violence then due to the failure of our political elite while negotiating,” he says.

Maxwele is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, he was arrested by President Jacob Zuma’s bodyguards for allegedly aiming a middle finger at the president’s motorcade. He denied it at the time. The case was dismissed.

But he cannot – and does not – deny his actions on March 9.

The decision to deface Rhodes’ statue was planned, even though it was not triggered by anything in particular, he told City Press.

“It was a Monday night and I went to Khayelitsha to steal the poo from the portable flush toilets. Seeing the statue every day pained me; it made me very angry.

“It is not just a statue, as many claim – Rhodes didn’t want black people. Remember that, at some point, UCT also didn’t want black people. Remember Professor [Archibald] Jordan, remember Archie Mafeje, remember Professor [Mahmood] Mamdani.”

In the 1960s, UCT employed Jordan, father of ANC liberation stalwart Pallo Jordan, in the linguistics department. But the university’s management refused him staff accommodation in Rondebosch and he was forced to live in Langa.

In 1968, the university refused to give Professor Archie Mafeje a teaching position. He went into exile, where he held different senior positions in different universities. Upon his return in the 1990s, the university offered him a senior lecturer post, which he justifiably rejected.

Mamdani, who was chairing the African studies department, had himself ejected from

UCT for daring to open up a debate about how African studies was taught to students.

Maxwele would, however, not comment on why he had not acted before. He has been at UCT, studying for a BA degree in political science, since being awarded a bursary in 2011.

He is equally reticent about his roots.

Maxwele moved to the township of Delft, where he matriculated from Cape Town High School after his father died in a mining accident.

He worked at Exclusive Books until he went to UCT to study.

“This is not about me,” he told City Press repeatedly in response to personal questions and being singled out as a leader of the anticolonial student protest action.

“Let’s not wrongly personalise the issue and detract from the big picture. This thing is about black people. It is about the history of black people; it is in front of you. It is a political blunder that this issue is even up for debate. In this country, we artificially dance around race and racism and don’t address it,” he says.

Maxwele says students are pushing for change in the curriculum, culture, employment of black academics and the names of buildings.

“There is Jameson Hall, Jan Smuts residence and others. We don’t identify with them – they symbolise our pain and hurt. White people are so arrogant and don’t want to acknowledge that black people have been suffocated.”

He called for students at the universities of Pretoria, Stellenbosch and the Free State to rise up and be counted.

“Let us rise up now and push back racism. This is a seminal moment and the vestiges of Rhodes should be eliminated once and for all.”

Rhodes, he says, was a rapacious thug who was discredited even by his fellow countrymen.

“He dispossessed and killed black people. His footprints are all over our country. You can’t even talk about mining in this country without invoking Rhodes. Remember how people in mines were treated, like they were in concentrations camps? All thanks to Rhodes.

“Why on earth do you want his statue to remain? To remind us of what he did to us?”

Protesters make their voices heard throughout SA

Chumani Maxwele’s actions have set off a series of demonstrations at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Rhodes University in Grahamstown and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban.

At Rhodes, students are haranguing management, demanding an immediate change to the university’s name, curriculum, culture and identity to reflect an African university.

Their counterparts at UKZN have defaced the statue of King George V, calling for its removal.

UCT yielded ground this week after an impassioned debate at a packed Jameson Hall on Wednesday night.

Tears trickled and shouts rang out as young voices – black and white – shared tales of racism.

UCT’s management had called the assembly in response to the #RhodesMustFall campaign – a protest action by students and staff who are seeking to quash institutionalised racism at one of South Africa’s top universities.

Maxwele attended the debate.

Pain was palpable as students took to the podium to deliver two-minute speeches.

A 21-year-old economics student, Danai Musandu from Zimbabwe, evoked the biggest response. “I want to tell everyone in this room, black, white and brown, that you are all African. And if you are African and this statue issue doesn’t bother you, then the future is moving faster than your consciousness.”

Vice-chancellor Max Price was listening attentively. Another student, who only identified himself as Ezra, pointed at Price, while screaming repeatedly: “Blood on your hands!”

BA in humanities student Bevan Willoughby said: “This university is divided because of fear. I want to tell my white peers not to fear transformation. Prejudice has been programmed into my inner core. But I can teach my children not to be prejudiced.”

In a statement late on Friday, UCT revealed that the senate had voted overwhelmingly in favour of recommending to the council that the statue of Rhodes be moved when the council holds its special sitting on April 8.

The senate said the statue must be handed over to government heritage authorities for safe custody and should be boarded up with immediate effect until its removal from the campus.

Only one senate member voted against the motion, with 181 in favour. There were three abstentions, according to the university.

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