Transformation pains

2015-05-05 06:00

A request for a special meeting has been called by UCT vice-chancellor to discuss transformation issues and plans at the university. The dispute surrounding the statue of Cecil John Rhodes will be on the agenda.

This comes after about 100 UCT students joined in a protest march to the university’s Bremner Building last week to demand that the Rhodes statue be removed.

The Bremner Building houses the university’s council offices.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price had previously stated that the Rhodes statue is “indeed a symbol of UCT’s colonial past”.

“Many have noted that as it currently stands, the statue of Rhodes is unmediated by any critical commentary or historical contextualising. There is nothing to suggest to any passerby how the university situates itself in relation to Rhodes’ actions and their impact. At the very least, we need to engage with that,” he says.

However, Price says the protest of two weeks ago has resulted in a massive outpouring of anger and frustration, which is “related to experiences of institutional racism which is aggravated by students’ perceptions that they are not being heard, or that their demands are not achieving the response they seek.”

Price said there are also similar frustrations experienced by a number of staff.

“There have also been many voices critical of both the mode of the student protest, and the view that the statue should be removed.

“Given this recent escalation of debate and protest, I think it appropriate to replace our original programme with a more accelerated process to facilitate a more rapid decision about the statue,” he said.

During the protest, UCT student Chumani Maxwele had flung human excrements at the statue in protest at the lack of transformation.

This protest action occurred on Monday 9 March. Maxwele says the “poo protest” was not them trying to prove anything, but to protest against the statue.

“UCT by its nature promotes a culture of individualism and elitism and it wants us to see other people as people and to be individual and this is why we are expressing ourselves.”

UCT’s Professor Sandra Klopper says while they respect the right of their students to protest and, in so doing, draw attention to the complex issues that confront all of us at UCT and in society at large, this is not a licence to engage in actions that in their view are reprehensible.

She said the use of excrement as a form of protest is unacceptable, and UCT condemns such action.

“UCT has procedures in place that allow students to protest. It is regrettable that, in this instance, the protesters did not follow the established procedures,” she says.

But last week students continued their campaign to have the statue removed and marched to the Bremner Building to deliver a memorandum demanding a date be provided to them as to when the “statue will fall”.

Maxwele says calling for the removal of the statue is one part of their campaign.

“There is a notion of racism in the institution – we want that to really go, that along with the Smuts and Jameson Hall. We want these names to be changed as well,” he says.

He is calling on students and all interested to rally together to find something to take out all the “eurocentric symbolism”.

“Lets find something that symbolises us as students and individuals – something that we can associate with,” he says.

Maxwele says there is an international university as well as Rhodes University supporting their initiative and “this shows that they are on the right track”.

“We have been dancing around the question of race and as students we have defined our destiny and mission and we want to fulfil it and not detract from it,” he says.

Former UCT student Benjamin Wilson believes “transformation in South Africa is too slow”. “We fought for democracy and here we have students fighting to change again. I support their cause and hope the necessary steps are taken to address the issue,” he says.

Student Fatima Docrat says anything that stands for oppression should be removed.

“I think if this is what people feel so strongly about then it is only fair that their voices be heard,” she says.

However, Price says only the university council can take the decision to move the Rhodes statue. It would have to seek approval from Heritage Western Cape.

Price shared the following proposals with the campus community as part of UCT’s plans for addressing various transformation issues in 2015. “We have initiated a process to review statues, building names and other symbols that affect the institutional climate of UCT, and how these affect the sense of inclusiveness or alienation felt by staff and students,” he says.

One option is to leave the statue as it is, but to place a plaque on its base that acknowledges the many injustices of colonial conquest enacted under Rhodes’ watch.

Price says this might be accompanied by another artwork to be located alongside Rhodes, to “speak back” by way of alternative values and convictions.

However, it is his view that the particular location and setting of the Rhodes statue is the problem and it cannot be addressed by contextualising the statue or installing alternative icons.

Price says it is because the “brooding presence of Cecil John Rhodes is located in pride of place, at the focal point of the campus, that it acquires the connotations of founder, hero, patron, role model, and embodiment of UCT’s heritage”.

“I do not think the statue should be destroyed or hidden away. I just think it should not be there – it should be moved.

“This will not compromise our ability to record and debate the role Rhodes played in the city’s and continent’s history. And it will not change our acknowledgment that UCT acquired its site from the Rhodes estate, and the positive contribution that it has made to our institution and its students,” he says.

There will an open Vula site until Tuesday 7 April where staff and students will be invited to express their views on the statue and on broader issues of what they think they and others can do to advance transformation more generally.

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