Dear UCT Students: The making of history

2015-03-18 13:09

The transformation pot in the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been heating up for some time. It has reached boiling point and is overflowing messily; yet it is necessary. Much as a cooking session, the mess will have to be cleaned, the stove restored to its beauty and the pot prepared for future use. This essentially means that the participants to the current mess must embark on a cleaning exercise and coexist in future.

You, as the students are sitting on a historic moment. You are at the tipping point to either ‘fulfill it [your mission] or betray it” as Franz Fanon counselled about the choice facing each generation. The mission is not the Rhodes statue that imposes itself ‘in pride of place, at the focal point of the campus’ as aptly captured by your Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price. The Rhodes Statue debate must situate itself as an important entry point to a generational mission that you are pursuing. There must be a goal post where your eyes are fixated, so you do not wrestle each other in futility. Simply put this mission is called TRANSFORMATION.

However, the term has gained fluidity and has become a subject of political contestation. You need to situate yourselves as a student body clearly on which plane of transformation you seek to pursue. What will your yardsticks of success be? What are the immediate achievable objectives? What are the long-term objectives? Where is the manifesto that carries these? Brandishing transformation around is not enough. Fortunately, you are in an academic institution and there should be no one who is allergic to robust and tearing discourse and engagement – it is the cornerstone of what academia should be about.

To your institution’s credit, management has not moved for the often draconian approach (which on its own is a sign of untransformed institutions) wherein managements suspend and/or expel students who would have done acts similar to those of protesting students. Effectively, by throwing poo to the Rhodes statue the students were defacing in no uncertain terms University property. As a student body you are far apart, divided along racial, ideological and class lines.

Even those that agree that the Rhodes statue must fall do not agree on mode of protest. Much as those that agree it should stay do not agree whether it be moved (as suggested by Dr. Price) to a different location or it be left where it is, as suggested by commentator Kameel Premhid. I personally disagree with statues, they are selective political interpretations of the past and in the long run promote a selective reading of history, understanding and preservation of heritage. They are classist to historic contributors and lack a justification in a modern society besides acting as shrines by other subtle means. However, there are many views and they must be heard.

No section of your student body should boycott any of the public discussions planned; though organized in ‘haste’ and with a timeframe inadequate to digest and process all views. In this process, I am persuaded by the Kantian view of deontological morality, wherein the actions (means) towards a goal (end) are important and must be morally correct. The means employed can act as a distraction on the envisaged goal and in our pursuit of societal change we must keep this in mind. For this reason poo protests find little joy with me. Not only because who will clean the poo? But fundamentally because whose poo is it to begin with? Is it that of the protester or also of other people who have not been consulted about its public use? Some may discount poo as processed material no longer needed by the body, but it remains somewhat very sacred and private to human beings.

This famous quote from Immanuel Kant’s work illuminates the point; “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end.” It also ties to the notion of when must we stop talking to those we disagree with. We must never stop. Engagement is the only instrument we have to communicate our ideas and make a point for why they matter; even if we do not win each other over. It is better to know why people act the way they do than to be ignorant because that motivates us to come up with (im)probable assumptions. This is certainly not a desired culture in a University. Thus, you must not on the one hand entrench dogmatic and undesirable acts (such as running away from dialogue) while on the other preaching commitment to institutional transformation (whose cornerstone must be uncompromised academic freedom).

There is no right or wrong. There are historic facts to guide you. Colonialism is indefensible, apartheid 'the crime against humanity' is indefensible. Rhodes is the foundation upon which both systems found expression as well as consolidation and birth respectively. Thus, Rhodes remains indefensible. For this reason I agree that the statue must be removed (not moved) from UCT altogether. There is something about sites that celebrate Cecil John Rhodes like the Statue in your campus, the Rhodes Memorial Site, the Rhodes House in Oxford, United Kingdom and Rhodes University itself. They are domineering in an obscene way. They capture the Cape to Cairo conquest madness very boldly.

I disagree with your Vice-Chancellor that because the actions of Rhodes led to the founding of UCT he must be in some way recognized. He is deviant from the Kantian principle of deontological morality. Effectively, we can argue that all colonialists and racists such as Rhodes that bequeathed some ‘fortune’ to people or institutions deserve due recognition. You cannot celebrate oppressors, you cannot continue to recognize and put them at the front seat of a democratic South Africa. It is not about rewriting history it is about capturing the society you live in. The suggestion by some that Rhodes statue must remain to showcase that the transformation struggle is not over is void. The living daily life experiences of ordinary South Africans are a symbol of an untransformed society – there is no greater reminder than that.

However, as UCT students you are sitting on a broader question of Heritage, symbolism and legacy championing or de-championing. A friend and a comrade in life, JJ Tabane, speaking in a conference in 2009 rightly reflected on Universities as a microcosm of society. Your actions both mirror our society and at the same time they set pace on how our society should deal with its discontent with race relations and the redress of historic injustices. You have a burden of discovering how much of the ‘transformation’ issues you seek are uniquely UCT and how much of them are a reflection of the state of higher education in the country, the continent and the globe as a whole. You need to use the Rhodes statue as a moment (not to obliterate) to showcase a need to remove legacies of imperialism and apartheid from our present day society. You need to show us as a broader society how we should do it, keeping in mind that the messily boiling pot that is our society must be cleaned for future use.

As a collective you must search and find the synthesis, so that in you we may find a mirror to reflect on while seeking answers to the broader societal transformation question in South Africa. You are sitting on a historic moment. It is in your hands whether to betray it negatively or to fulfill it positively.

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