The [Fall]ing Point: South Africa at a Cross-Rhodes

2015-03-27 19:40

After all the reports, articles and commentary on what has been an eventful week, most calling it the awakening of African student consciousness, my own campus has decided to chip in its contribution to the transformational agenda, and its one I think is most fitting considering the claims and values it espouses. I decided to lend my own perceptions and opinions in this piece to the foray.

With all the ruckus manifested around erections of colonial figures in South Africa’s educational institutions of higher learning, the country has come to a historical crossroads (insert pun here for a chuckle if you wish). With the University of Cape Town undergoing a tumultuous period in its long history, questions are being asked as to whether institutions of higher learning have kept pace with the expectant ideals of transformation by Black South Africans and students since 1994. The spaces and policies at UCT clearly have not, and are reflective of a larger atmosphere in the mother city. Recent reports detailing racial incidents in the former capital reveal a divided city, entrenched in bias against Africans either working or studying there. Such incidents and the attitudes preceding them may well be a sub-conscious remnant of socio-colonial conditioning, and its prevailing memoirs (physical or otherwise) left behind as simultaneous celebrations for victors, and as painful reminders to Africans, in both historical and current epochs. The city itself has been the focus of reports detailing racist incidents or policies over a number of months. Whether these are actually based in truth or an attempt by external forces to degrade the DA’s position in the Western Cape is beyond the scope, as well as the pertinence of this article.

While students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have embarked on similar action to that of UCT, defacing the statue of King George V, the atmosphere and impetus shown by students and lecturers is comparatively less ignited when compared to the former. This comes from a multitude of factors affecting the college. Some have dismissed these latest rants as political opportunism, where the glint of cameras and the expected frenzy of media would engender radical action and sensationalized egos. This though, hasn't been the case. Space for dialogue and reasonable engagement have prevailed, and for the most part, protests have been peaceful, although minimal in participant numbers. On the other hand, overworked lecturer/academic schedules, coupled with management concerns over up budgets annually, might lead to thinking the protests as an exorbitant affair, adding to an already overloaded plate of issues they have to deal with. Like it or not, they will be forced to address this transformational issue. Although scenes of lament have only been limited to a handful of students (probably a maximum of 30) at UKZN - huddled around the figure of the former monarch, others have gone about their daily lives in a nonchalant fashion, apathetically trudging to and from class. The economic issues taking precedence over others in Durban, makes sure most self interested kids are concerned with their [individual] futures. Many students I speak to simply express a desire to simply go about their studies quietly, get their qualifications and move on with their lives, as the institution is seen to have long lost its zeal.

Back of the defaced statue of King George at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

As the one university consistently noted for its progressive commitment to transformation (most notably with the introduction of a mandatory Zulu module for BA students) this is one issue the university will have to tend to in order keep its lips on the proverbial horn it's been blowing for all these years. I for one would be surprised if the statue of King George isn't taken down and installed in a museum. The fact that his figure is openly displayed for all to see, is a remnant of a larger and more powerful statement left by a withered imperial legacy intent on displaying its victories and domination. But more than a lament on erections representative of a festered period of our history, this should be an opportunity for the creation of spaces representative of a new era in our educational spaces, representative of all our peoples. I’d suggest the commissioning of a modern art sculpture, depicting all peoples and cultures of South Africa and its institutions of learning. It surprises me how the national coat of arms has received the facelift treatment long before our centers of learning, where numerous government officials have once schooled.

First year students who enter the spaces of educational institutions, whether they realize it or not, are imprinted by impressions by the surrounds upon their first encounter in these spaces, architects and special designers will tell anyone this who wishes to ask. What about the spaces in UCT or UKZN? Do they speak of inclusion and the embracing of South Africa as it is now? Good or bad, the present epoch in which we live is one which is without the overbearing presence and control of the British Empire and this should be evidenced in the pillars and statues erected in and around the campus of the university. Subtle nuance and impressions laid by these markers are more than most would care to admit, as the ideals and symbolism they represent (especially with George in this particular pose - with books coiled in one hand, and a pronounced broad sword in the other) can imprint pre-designed conceptions into those who cast their gaze. Buildings and statues in this way emit power in ways we can't comprehend most of the time

Mind you, the 'Good Story to Tell' is yet to be written as far as anyone is concerned, but the removal of monuments perceived as libelous to the consciousness of African students is a start. We don’t have to erect anything in place of colonial markers, but at least their removal acknowledges that we’re in a new time and space, one which needs to be shaped positively and with meaning  reflective of the time in which we nowfind ourselves.

It has since been announced that a committee meeting has been setup by the UKZN management and that a platform for dialogue will commence this weekend. 

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