On UCT, transformation and #Rhodesmustfall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

RhodesThe statue of Cecil John Rhodes you can see alongside these words stands on Madiba Circle at UCT, overlooking the sports fields. It’s there because UCT’s main campus is situated on land bequeathed by Rhodes in 1928 as “the site of a national university“.

The fact that it’s currently there doesn’t mean it should stay there – and if an ongoing protest is successful, it won’t be there for long. The protest started last Monday, March 9, with Chumani Maxwele emptying the contents of a portable toilet on the statue, and continued with various ad hoc engagements as well as a rally on Jameson Plaza.

The protest is motivated by – and this is of course the nutshell version – students being aggrieved that a statue of an arch-colonialist, racist and sexist such as Rhodes occupies such a prominent place on our campus.

Pictures of the rally allowed for some wry smiles also, given that students who were facing the statue of Rhodes would also have had their backs to Jameson Hall – the building named after Leander Starr Jameson, Rhodes’ lifelong friend and ally in various racist land-grabs and other mad schemes like the Jameson Raid.

There are problematic names and symbols on UCT’s campus, to be sure – but there are also others that are less so, like Madiba Circle and the Steve Biko building. (Limiting the discussion to this one aspect, namely racism, apartheid and its corollaries.)

This doesn’t make the problematic ones okay. But it does speak to an awareness, on the part of UCT’s governing structures, of the need to make changes. And the fact that the current management of UCT is committed to building a campus that is welcoming to all is not, I think, something that a fair person can dispute.

You can dispute the pace of progress, or how things are prioritised, but I think the intentions are clear, and sincere. Furthermore, the last 5 years have been occupied by debates on exactly these issues, in the form of the admissions policy debate.

Before Maxwele’s protest, plans to have debates and consultative processes on signage, symbolism and naming had already been set in motion. The first such discussion (unless I’ve missed something) takes place tomorrow today.

What some critics don’t understand is that large organisations such as UCT can often not move at the pace that you’d prefer. Also, the headlines often obscure complexities – it’s quite possible, for example, that there are other stakeholders with regard to the statue, perhaps the City of Cape Town.

Second, and as a friend remarked, “removing a statue is easy” – but we don’t know if it’s the best option until more debate has been held. Perhaps you want to leave it there as a reminder of the past, adding a plaque explaining what a terrible man he was. Perhaps you want to build a statue of someone who serves as an “antidote” to Rhodes alongside him, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.

There are many options besides tearing it down, is the point – and while it’s true that the current mood is in favour of tearing it down, the university – and the SRC – should be acting in the best interests of the university as a whole, and most crucially, in the best interests of future students.

(As an aside, if the statue were to go, it’s not at all true that we’d have to start rejecting Rhodes scholarships and any other things called Rhodes. It’s entirely possible to make a logical and moral distinction between commemorative statues and bequests of land/money that serve some public interest.)

I’ve been at UCT since 1992, and it’s great to see significant student engagement with political issues after what has been quite a long slumber. But to some extent, there’s the possibility of a more highbrow version of Twitter slacktivism here.

The conversation shouldn’t only be about what will satisfy us now, but rather on what is the most principled and defensible choice to make. I fear that grandstanding is getting in the way of this to some extent. Second, I fear that the issue of the statue can obscure larger and more important problems – as I said above, it’s an easy win.

Will tearing down the statue help with throughput or graduation rates? Will it improve the comprehension of the first-year students I teach, many of whom struggle to engage with abstract ideas at all, after a decade of schooling that has taught them to be studiously literal?

I don’t think so. But having said that, my intuition is that the statue should go, if it can – although I’ll want to hear all the arguments for and against before committing to that intuition, because as I indicate above, its continued existence might serve the same purpose as the protesters desire.

More crucially, though, I hope that we can avoid letting this important debate end up being a distraction, or simply a vehicle for opportunism.

STATUE