Name change is the war rather than battle – A Rhodes University perspective

2015-03-24 14:03

Mvuzo Ponono

The UCT moment is the UCT moment. Tearing down of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town will not do much to end racism at the institution or South Africa.

The point made by Chumani Maxwele, who threw human faeces at the statue, is it is a symbol of degradation and oppression. The statue’s very existence means that the university has failed to disrupt historical continuity and to redress imbalances.

The powerful run-on effect of the protest action at UCT is its strategic targeting of an artefact to denote the continued struggle for equality. Should the statue fall, a greater space to converse about or agitate for transformation will have been instituted. What is being realised is the strength of the oppressed to press for change – by any means necessary.

The students at UCT have already raised the voice of the subservient by threatening the stability of the institution. In the broader process of transformation, the statue is ultimately meaningless but it is meaningful to the fight for change.

The statue allows all actors to point to a concrete object as progression. Victory for the agitators is the removal, which will come only if the university compromises. Both parties will have a visible object to show for their attempts to ultimately work for the restoration of order and the restoration of human dignity.

This is not the case at Rhodes University. Changing of the name means conservatives have nothing to show for this will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. The name at RU is a dogfight, and not a strategic battle to win a war. It is a winner takes all grudge match. The stakes are too high.

Nonetheless, the insurrection at UCT has major implications for RU, but what we should recognise is the difference of the two scenarios.

The consequence is that RU cannot justify keeping the name when the shameful legacy of Rhodes has made it impossible for UCT to do the same. This is because Rhodes the man is the affirmation of an oppressive past, black exploitation and white supremacy. Keeping the name means that Rhodes is comfortable defending the dubious heritage of its namesake despite his incongruence with the struggle for a just society.

This is an impossible position to take.

Despite the fallacy, the struggles of UCT and RU are unmistakeably interlinked. The uniting factor in the current struggle is the cause for dismantling racism. The uniting cause then is Rhodes the man, and not Rhodes the statue. RU students must realise that riding the wave of the statue falling and challenging the name at RU will not achieve the same tangible results possible at UCT.

Should history allow, the fall of the statue at UCT will only begin the effort of challenging a myriad incarnations of colonialism and apartheid. The statue as a target gives students at the University the platform to agitate for greater change.

The same case does not apply for RU because we will lose. The statue is not the same as the name. At UCT it is a much more accessible vehicle to drive the larger debate of transformation. We should find our own symbol for that end.

The name is not our symbol. By rushing onto the wave we potentially limit our ability to harness the strength of the current movement. Without the requisite capital and power, calling for name change means waging a purely abstract war against an organised and superior force. It will not budge.

The best way towards a broader and more sustained engagement with the institution is to find unique symbols of our oppression and continued humiliation. These symbols need to be a concrete enough target to allow for victory. When a winnable fight is fought, each victory generates the momentum and voice to tackle other issues. The steady gains raise the consciousness of the powerful to the plight pf the downtrodden. Victory is visibility and loss is a wasted historical opportunity.

The fall of the statue at UCT will not cost the university anything; it will only slightly alter power relations. The change of the name at RU has cost implications. So it is fair to argue that if managed improperly, changing the name might detriment the brand. Not because RU might have a black name but due to the delicacy of brand association. Thus large sums of money would have to be invested in the process of re-branding.

This route allows detractors to argue that this money could be used for educating black students. The statue has also been defended, but the force of history makes it indefensible. The name too is indefensible but too many powerful invested bodies, visible and invisible, render it impossible for us to win this fight at this stage.

A careful reading of the UCT moment reveals that this is an incremental struggle. We need a symbol powerful enough to announce that ‘we have arrived’ but also one that is attainable. We need to search deep within to find our sources of degradation at RU. We should find the objects and the symbols around us that degrade the most and tear those down. We should trade one victory for another.

We will eventually get to the name but it is not of upmost concern – and I say that consciously knowing that it is the official line. The point is that we should not be blunted by these sentiments. The UCT moment is one to realise that we can rise above the red tape and find our own voice.

Mvuzo Ponono is a PhD candidate at Rhodes University.

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