Rhodes, Van Riebeeck and the Poo Protest

2015-03-10 17:11

I was sixteen when a friend of the same age called to tell me what had just happened. He had, without permission, stolen his mother’s car for his Saturday night joy ride. He had also managed to procure alcohol and as a result, had somewhat carelessly driven the car through the garden wall and landed it in the swimming pool (shallow end). As it was late, and his thought process was somewhat compromised (by his youth, his stupidity and alcohol – a potentially deadly combination), he climbed out the car, went inside leaving a trail of wet clothes behind him as he disrobed and went to bed. I can only surmise that he intended dealing with the whole unfortunate matter in the morning.

The sun rose fairly quickly that particular Sunday morning and he opened his eyes to see his mother, a child psychologist, sitting at the edge of his bed, wringing her hands and staring at him intently. It took a moment for the memory to come swimming back to him as he desperately clambered for a reasonable explanation as to what could explain a stolen car, empty bottles of beer broken garden wall, and well, a car in the shallow end of the kidney shaped swimming pool. As it happened, before he had the chance to try one out, his mother looked at him and said, “Marc, you must be very angry”. She had provided the explanation and he knew he was safe. He was 16, she was a psychologist, and indeed, he must be very angry.

The dousing of Rhodes Memorial with human excrement is being reported as some kind of protest against the symbols of white supremacy. Apparently the statue of Rhodes perched on the mountain side alongside UCT Campus is so offensive that some students had no choice but to anoint him as they did. A student, Chumani Maxwele, led the charge saying that the “poo” represented the “shame of Black people” and by throwing it at the statue, “We are throwing our shame to white’s affluence”. Blaming a statue of Rhodes for white affluence is like blaming Van Riebeeck for the Cape Town fires

Unlike my friend’s mother I am not a psychologist. And I don’t need to rationalize horrible behaviour. Clearly Chumani is angry (one has to be to behave this way) but not nearly as angry as we should be. At a time when Cape Town and indeed the country is reeling from the devastating fires that decimated so much of the Cape, that cost at least one life but that endangered many, we should expect our students to behave a little better than that. Surely another way to deal with that dastardly statue and all that it represents is to get involved with upliftment programs and by assisting in the education of children through the many programs they could choose to join. So that the "shame" that they refer to is irradiated through education and not through human excrement. They are university students after all - with way too much time on their smelly hands.

Protest and "acting out" is a right of passage. They are as important as the formal education that our universities offer. We know that it is through debate and engagement that our youth learn to challenge and question and it is how they make sense of a very confusing world that is adulthood. But there are limits and the need to understand what is and what is not acceptable. And when your protest is a protest just for the sake of it and when you do stupid and offensive things, well then that’s simply just stupid. And offensive.

Marc’s mother would have done well to make him rebuild the garden wall, dry the seats on the Ford Cortina and mow the lawn for month. Telling him it was fine to be angry entrenched him in that position and gave him permission to continue to test the boundaries until his parents had no choice but to impose the rules they never thought they would.

So too the university has a choice to make. Either deal with this now, set rules and guidelines or do so later when further norms are breached and when more damage is done and when there is little choice. The Ford Cortina is in the shallow end, we had best find a way to get it out, clean it up and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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