A person dead for 113 years does not often overwhelm a leading university and dominate national headlines. But on 10 March politics student Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the centre of the University of Cape Town’s campus. Maxwele’s protest has electrified long-standing resentments about the ways in which the past is remembered and celebrated in the present. It has also crystalized deep and entrenched disagreements about student admissions, the university curriculum and academic appointments.
Rhodes’ s brooding image and the UCT campus are framed by Devil’s Peak and the World Heritage site of Table Mountain. They look out over the Cape Flats and its townships and informal settlements, many of which still lack basic services. Extreme income inequality remains a persistently stubborn problem more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Inevitably, issues that are precipitated by symbols and fought through at the university have a far wider resonance. Nelson Mandela, who was awarded an honorary degree by UCT within weeks of leaving prison in 1990, knew this. When opening the new national museum on Robben Island in 1997, he said: “Having excluded and marginalised most of our people, is it surprising that our museums and national monuments are often seen as alien spaces? With democracy, we have the opportunity to ensure that our institutions reflect history in a way that respects the heritage of all our citizens”.
Maxwele’s protest was in the tradition of guerrilla theatre; unexpected performances in public places designed for maximum impact. Wearing a brightly coloured safety helmet and two placards – “Exhibit White Arrogance UCT”, “Exhibit Black Assimilation UCT” – Maxwele emptied his bucket in front of the press, tipped off to attend. Maxwele was already well known for protesting the privileges of power wherever they are found; arrested in 2010 for gesturing at President Jacob Zuma’s motorcade, he successfully sued the Minister of Police for wrongful arrest. His UCT protest has again touched a point of acute sensitivity, setting off widening responses and reactions.
Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre referenced an established mode of protest in Cape Town. While South Africa’s 1996 constitution guarantees equity in access to basic services, many in the townships and informal sessions lack basic services such as sanitation. In June 2013 raw sewage was thrown at Western Cape Premier Helen Zille while she was visiting a township in the city, and buckets from portable toilets were emptied in the Legislature. Similar protests have continued, including the arrest of some two hundred people travelling into the city with bags of excrement and the dumping of sewage at Cape Town International Airport. In his protest at UCT, Maxwele was taking this form of confrontation to another of Cape Town’s iconic places.
There have been comparable flashpoints in the past. In 1986, Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien’s decision to confront the academic boycott of South Africa by lecturing at UCT was a focus for student protests and deep differences between academics. In 2005 a white professor died after an altercation with a black doctoral student in the campus, leading to campus-wide protests about the pace and direction of change. Will the fallout from the Rhodes statue protest be one in a series of punctuations in an on-going trajectory of change or will it precipitate the radical shift that UCT’s Student Representative Council and black staff group – TransformUCT – are calling for?
Dean of Humanities Sakhela Buhlungu thinks that Maxwele has pushed open a door to radical change. A sociologist and expert on the labour market, Buhlungu has seen how “symbolic moments” can result in the convergence of pressures for change.
Speaking at the Vaal University of Technology a few weeks before the Rhodes statue controversy exploded, Buhlungu expressed the mounting frustrations across a number of universities at employment practices that count against black South Africans. In parallel, students are increasingly calling for changes to the curriculum, and for academics who are more representative of the diversity of their country. Student Rekgotsofetse Chikane: “why must it be that a student at the University of Cape Town is pushed to the point of having to throw faecal matter over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in order to have a conversation about transformation?” The issue, Chikane says, is the “subliminal racism” “that makes you ignorant about your subjugation because you are never challenged to seriously engage on critical matters”.
The University of Cape Town’s first response to these calls or actions was to convene a discussion about heritage, signage and symbolism. But before this could meet there had been further protests centred on Rhodes’ statue, now swathed and taped in black rubbish bags. By the time that these first negotiations with the university administration were convened, the Student Representative Council position had hardened. SRC President Ramabina Mahapa: “I understand it is part of history but the institutional representation of black people at this university is negative. The SRC has taken the stance that the statue must come down”. The SRC walked out of the meeting.
From here, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement escalated rapidly, culminating in a march and the occupation of UCT’s administration building. Vice-Chancellor Max Price has responded with an extensive timetable of university-wide debates and a special meeting of Senate to consider proposals. He has said that he and his Executive favour removing the statue but only the University Council can decide. An emergency meeting of the Council has been called for April 25.
Meanwhile the UCT stand-off has become a national issue. Students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown have protested in sympathy and Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has given his support.
Where next? If Sakhela Buhlungu is right then symbolic changes – or the removal of the statue – will not be sufficient. There will also need to be significant changes to the university’s curriculum, its staff profile and its admissions policies. Because UCT is South Africa’s – and Africa’s – highest rated university in global rankings, such changes will have implications across the higher education system as a whole. Rekgotsofetse Chikane sees UCT as being in “the unfortunate position of being a European university stuck at the bottom of Africa”. This could change.
While views on what should be done to resolve these issues continue to differ sharply, few will have any sympathy with Cecil John Rhodes. In his 1877 “confession of faith”, Rhodes wrote “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. Such a set of beliefs puts Chumani Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre in perspective. Whether this is a moment that will be remembered for its consequences or another flashpoint on a long, slow, road to change remains to be seen.
Also published by BBC News, 25 March 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31945680