Rhodes Must Fall: Students have their say

Cape Town - Last Friday, the University of Cape Town Senate passed a motion in favour of removing the controversial statue of Cecil John Rhodes currently standing on the university’s upper campus.

While the final decision on the monument’s status still requires one last sitting of a special council on April 8, there can be no denying the polarising effect the debate has had on the Cape Town institution.

Juvenile, hypocritical, uneducated, brave, necessary, overdue are but some of the adjectives used to describe the actions of a handful of students who have sparked one of the biggest transformation debates in South African education.

News24 spent some time with three of these students to find out just what is driving such an aggressive call for change from a generation "born free".

On Rhodes Must Fall...

Ntokozo Dladla, Mbali Matandela and Ishmael Mahlangu are three students involved in the occupation of UCT's administrative building during the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign.

Their respective roads to the corridors of UCT's Bremner building have not been the same, with one hailing from a private school in Pretoria, another from a rural area in Mpumalanga.

But it’s their felt experiences, they say, based on their shared skin colour, that has united them in their feelings of alienation at the university.

“We are just trying to recognise that we have a right to be at this university,” said Dladla, a 21-year-old student currently in his fourth year of an LLB (law) degree.

“The systems and the processes in place here have worked in such a way to exclude us from feeling as though we are part of this university. We feel alienated.

“The statue just dramatises those feelings. We don’t want it destroyed; we just want it removed from the campus.”

Matandela, a 21-year-old Honours student studying gender and transformation, says the issue goes much deeper than mere words on a building or a statue, but is rather a focal point for a much wider issue.

“The lectures don’t represent your history or your narrative at all,” she said.

“You don’t see yourself on the campus monuments, on the naming of the buildings. You then turn to your books which don't address you.

“Students learn from lecturers, and lecturers learn from students, and you share an experience.

“When that experience is not there, you’re almost disconnected from knowledge itself.”

Sleeping bags line the corridors of the Bremner building. (Paul Herman, News24)

On occupying Bremner...

In a move to escalate the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which started with protests staged on the university’s upper campus, approximately 50-70 students, made the decision to occupy UCT’s Bremner building on Friday March 20.

The hostile action was taken after university management "failed" to provide the students with a date on which the Rhodes statue would be removed.

They were met with criticism from many quarters, but Dladla states that the occupation has great historical significance, and wasn’t taken lightly.

So what are these learners doing all day in a building designed for administration?

“The reason this space is here is to 'conscientise' those members of the student body who don’t understand how we feel,” Dladla elaborated.

“We host screenings and discussions everyday here. These screenings concern violence, and goes into the works of [Frantz] Fanon and many others, including Thomas Sankara,” added Mahlangu.

Members of both the student body, as well as the staff at UCT, are invited to engage with the students at Bremner building on "institutional racism" by attending these screenings.

“There has been an overwhelming response. The numbers interested increase every day from people who are not involved in the movement, and from people of all races," Matandela said.

“The biggest surprise has been from the amount of black lecturers who have supported us. We’ve received messages not just from within the university, but from all over the country.”

The trio also said the group plans to continue the occupation of the Bremner building until the special sitting of UCT's council on April 8.

Bremner building on UCT's middle campus has been dubbed 'Azania House' (Paul Herman, News24)

On ‘neglecting their studies’...

Another accusation levelled at the protesters has been a perceived "apathy" toward their studies, in choosing to focus on protesting against a statue rather than "going to classes".

Matandela, though, had an answer for this presumption too.

“We’ve set up a boardroom where we can do our work,” explained Matandela.

“People come in and work around their own timetables. It actually hasn’t been a problem.”

Along with this special boardroom used for homework, a meeting room has been co-opted out of one of the building’s seminar rooms.

Here, coffee and tea line the walls of the room, while projectors display footage of black African history on a loop, for those wanting to attend the seminars aimed at engagement.

It is in this meeting room that the students, of which members of all races are present, including white and foreign students, meet every morning to discuss the relevant issues of the day, provide feedback, and to assign tasks.

“Within this movement we’ve organised ourselves into sub-committees that are dedicated to various aspects of the movement, and there’s someone to organise the day’s schedule and the day’s programme,” explained Matandela.

“So for instance we have the artistic expression committee. They are predominantly our art students, and three days in a row now they’ve had various protests on upper campus that are profound and powerful.”

“[And] the decisions we make, we make altogether. Every decision is made together. It is transparent that way,” added Mahlangu.

Students work in the Bremner boardroom during their free time. (Paul Herman, News24)

On Rhodes scholarships and bursaries…

Arguably the most controversial accusation levelled at some of the protesting students has been their eagerness to protest against the Rhodes name despite the many bursaries now afforded to black African students from the Rhodes educational grant.

Mahlangu took a philosophical approach to the issue.

“I think the same can be said about the question 'why are we fighting UCT when we are at UCT?'

“You can’t silence us from speaking on injustice just because, let’s say, I’m on a Rhodes scholarship. It’s still wrong.

“Perhaps I became more conscious of this problem only after I accepted it, or maybe I was in a desperate position and I had to take the scholarship at the time.

“But if I think it [the continued presence of the statue on the campus] is an injustice, then I am going to speak out about it.”

The University of Cape Town’s special council is due to make its final decision regarding the status of the Cecil John Rhodes statue on April 8. If passed, it will then require approval from Heritage Western Cape.

To read more on the debate surrounding the colonial monument on News24, click here

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