Since the beginning of March, South African university students have been protesting to have symbols and remnants of what they call Eurocentrism and imperialism removed from their universities. Students, like those at Cape Town and Rhodes, want the names of structures changed and their curriculum to focus more on black African culture and history. They have been using both social and traditional media, public debates, sit-ins and sleep-ins, and meetings with university administration.
Victoria John and Kwanele Sosibo of the Mail & Guardian spoke to Pinda Mofokeng, the provincial secretary of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) and a developmental studies student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, about why the protest was occurring now.
The conditions at the time were right. If you look around at the disparities between the rich whites and the poor blacks, it’s expanding. Black people, the majority of South Africans, are in a state of despair.
If you read comments on all stories and social media, if you look at the amount of insults from white people against black people, it’s a shame, and black people internalize that and there comes a time when enough is enough. But, as with most revolutions, we wait for someone to light the fire. What happened at UCT, that was the thing that lit the fire.
The incident to which Mofokeng is referring is the defacement of statues on a few college campuses, which Sasco is taking responsibility for. The movement was begun when Chumani Maxwele covered UCT’s Cecil Rhodes statue in human excrement. UCT’s senate has voted in favor of recommending to the council that the Cecil Rhodes statue be removed and given to government heritage authorities. According to ZimEye, the monument has now been boarded up in accordance with these wishes. Maxwele said of this triumph,
It came as a result of a narrative of student power, which has been reawakened. It was never going to be the willingness of the Senate, that statue has stood there for over 80 years. This is a victory for the students who have shown that there is power in unity.
This protest is known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, and participating students have organized ways to focus on their classwork even as they are involved in sit-ins and other protest activities. According to Masa Kekana of Eyewitness News, the students don’t get much sleep, but they have been tutoring each other and arranged ways of handing in their papers on time.
Free State University rector Jonathan Jansen said:
I don’t believe it’s about the statue, I believe it’s about whether the institutional culture of these universities, mine included, are in fact deeply committed to change in the complexion of their staff, the demographics of their students, the content of their curriculum, and this thing called institutional culture.
Gillian Schutte of IOL news has noted that reactions to the movement show white privilege in action. One young white student noted that “if I were so unhappy I would just leave,” not realizing that these problems are inescapable, and that some of these students are sleeping in public bathrooms and under bridges to get an education. One protester, Rethabile Makoanyane, shared social media posts from white people that refer to black students as pigs, baboons, and savages, echoing historical sentiments that black people are immoral animals. Protesters argue that continuing to display objects and attitudes that support colonialism and apartheid is not much different than this outspoken sort of racism.
Citizens in places like Port Elizabeth and Pretoria are also fighting to have colonial statues removed. Other universities worldwide have issued statements of solidarity, like the University of California at Berkeley, Oxford University, and the University of the West Indies.