‘If you think this is about the statue, you need to catch up’

2015-04-12 15:00

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The Rhodes statue has fallen, but students countrywide believe this is only the beginning. Athandiwe Saba and Xolani Mbanjwa spoke with a dozen #RhodesMustFall activists from UCT, Rhodes and Wits.

‘If you think this is about the statue, you need to catch up with the current discourse,” says Kgotsi Chikane.

He is a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and was the organiser of the first meeting of students after the statue was defaced. He’s also the son of anti-apartheid cleric Frank Chikane.

“I thought only a few people would attend, but we had more than 1?000 students who wanted to discuss the issues raised by the defacing.”

This, he says, is a movement of people voicing their frustrations about the lack of transformation in South Africa. It’s a collective that has no single leader.

“Rhodes Must Fall is not just students being radical; it encompasses the issues of everyone – from black academic staff to the cleaners?...?UCT has not reached any of its transformation targets and there has been no outcry about this,” he says with a defiant tone.

These sentiments are echoed by Zizipho Pae, who is studying economics and statistics at UCT. She says the statue was a symbol of the oppression she and others have been experiencing.

“These middle-aged white men [on the university council] don’t understand issues of transformation, equality and symbolism,” she says.

Many students consider the removal of the statue a watershed moment from which their issues can finally be addressed.

“It’s more than just the statue; the dead man affects us because his legacy of oppression and exploitation lives in everything at UCT. For example, you get management saying they can’t hire too many black people at the same time because it will drop the standard of the university. This is only the beginning of a road that will allow for transformation to finally happen, and we will be radical about it,” insists Pae.

Ndapwa Alweendo, a Rhodes University student studying towards her master’s in politics and a member of the Black Students’ Movement, agrees the problem is in getting senior management to listen. “They are trying to frame our issues as if they are frivolous or we are wasting time?...?A lot of conversations have been happening about students and not with students,” she says.

Now that the statue is gone, the hard work begins, says Chikane. “The statue was only a galvanising tool. Now we start with the hard work of conscientising people about black pain, institutionalised racism and black patriarchy.”

Mabhida Martins, a UCT social sciences student and chair of the ANC Youth League on campus, says you can’t separate the Rhodes statue from overall issues of transformation.

“Students and even staff are now motivated to speak up on issues they usually would never have spoken about. Now they can see there’s a change coming; they can see a tangible victory.”

Martins supports the view that the campaign should keep the name Rhodes Must Fall to capitalise on the events when campaigning on other issues.

Greg Maxaulane, a PhD in politics student at Wits University, says he and other black students wrote a letter to Wits management last October stating their dissatisfaction with the treatment of staff, staffing demographics and lack of curricular transformation.

“These are singular issues that are interrelated, and black pain and experience is linked to this. We need to decolonialise the university space and the curriculum?...?This is something the older generation should have dealt with in 1994. Instead of belittling our struggle, they should be joining us, because being black is still a liability. I want to know that one day when I want to become a lecturer, I can do so without having a cloud over my head,” he adds.

But the students reiterate that this is not a party political fight.

Martins feels that if the campaign had been driven by a party or political leader it would have “fallen to bits”.

“At first, I struggled with the concept of removing myself as an ANC Youth League leader, but it was the best thing to happen. In the end, we didn’t want to be divided by political emotions and baggage, because anyone could have divided us,” says Martins.

One placard posted on Facebook by a student reads: “Dear history, this revolution has women, gays, queers and trans. Remember that.”

Musa Gwebani, a former journalism student at Rhodes, says she joined the movement because she had her own stories of oppression to share.

“That statue represented oppression, and you find this in the curriculum – how white kids are better equipped to enter these universities, and the treatment of black workers. We are trying to conscientise the students that they are oppressed and their pain and struggles in these institutions are real,” she says.

But the discourse at the heart of UCT is happening in a building occupied by students who were served an eviction notice on Friday. They have until Tuesday to decide how they will respond – but some say they will not budge until their further transformation demands are met.

Vice-chancellor Max Price says he is considering approaching the Human Rights Commission after the refrain of “one settler, one bullet” was chanted by students occupying a UCT council meeting on Wednesday.

Yesterday, Chumani Maxwele, one of the leaders of the protest movement, said that while the university had heeded their request to remove the Rhodes statue, the group had other unmet demands, such as the renaming of the university’s famous Jameson Hall.

– Additional reporting by Biénne Huisman

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