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Contested spaces, artefacts in SA’s higher education

#RhodesMustFall and the ensuing #FeesMustFall, which both mutated into various and continuing #MustFall movements across South African higher institutions of learning, says the writer.

#RhodesMustFall and the ensuing #FeesMustFall, which both mutated into various and continuing #MustFall movements across South African higher institutions of learning, says the writer.

Published Jan 13, 2022


Yonela Mlambo

Luqman Muraina

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CAPE TOWN - In March 2015, a University of Cape Town (UCT) student, Chumani Maxwele, committed a brave action.

I argue that this action to many South Africans was unprecedented, i.e., to pour human excrement on the statue of the former prime minister of the Cape Colony - Cecil Rhodes. This provocation occurred on one of Rhodes’ personal and long-standing racial legacies -- the UCT’s upper campus.

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Chumani’s action caught the media’s attention and made breaking news on digital, print, and social media platforms alike because a significant colonial matrix of power was threatened, especially in an influential white and privileged South African university.

However, it is essential to mention that Chumani’s action was not extraordinary, notwithstanding that it ignited #RhodesMustFall and the ensuing #FeesMustFall, which both mutated into various and continuing #MustFall movements across South African higher institutions of learning.

Yonela Mlambo is MPhil Candidate at UCT

Historically, black university’s students’ have always raised the issues that the many #MustFall student movements raised. Unfortunately, they received minimal or no media attention. This is due to the placement and status of these universities as Black and underprivileged African universities, which are under served in terms of media coverage and undeserving to cause national uproars.

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Moreover, South Africa has a rich history of student activism, including and amongst high school students; thus, we argue that what Chumani did in pouring human excrement on the Rhodes statue was not extraordinary. Chumani’s action only became unusual because it happened at a White University, and hence gathered media and public attention.

Furthermore, South African exceptionalism fuelled the 2015-2017 student protest violence. Had South Africa not embraced the delusion of its exceptionalism, Rhodes’ statue would have fallen quietly without any violence. Moreover, we argue that university management and the government would have avoided arson and vandalism of the university's infrastructure. They would have salvaged the unwanted white oppressive artefacts burned during the protests and had them securely stored for educational purposes in museums.

For instance, the artefacts burned during the #Shackville protest at UCT in 2016 in the then Jameson hall, now Sarah Baartman hall, would have been avoided had South Africa not embraced the delusion of its exceptionalism. This is after the condemnation of exceptionalism popularised by some sections of academia, including non-student violent developments and the dearth of leading any African renaissance.

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Unfortunately, the Rainbow nation has failed to learn intently from these occasions.

Achille Mbembe reminds us that taking down the colonial artefacts is imperative for decolonisation work. This is because these artefacts create and induce a particular state of humiliation (Black pain and alienation) that mentally harasses black students on a daily basis, because the students know who and what these images represent.

Rhodes’ statue represented colonial conquest, the dispossession of black people of their land and the coercion of black people to sell cheap labour to European settlers. For that reason, the 2015-2017 #MustFall movements encapsulated #OutSourcingMustFall. Outsourcing of university workers continued a system of impoverishing poor Black workers at the expense of business capitalists and magnates who shade themselves as public university executives.

Student demands for the fall of Rhodes’ statue and colonial artefacts was not a frivolous call emanating from students’ idleness. Rather, it was a clarion call endeavouring to eradicate colonial memory and efforts to satisfy black existential identity in South African universities and higher institutions of learning.

Moreover, the 2015-2017 #MustFall student movements also endeavoured to dismantle the modern disciplinary ontology coloured in male, white, patriarchal, and Eurocentric colours and devoid of African-ness, indigenous people, and Africa’s social realities.

During and post the #MustFall student movements, universities deludedly initiated insignificant decolonisation efforts that largely support changing university building names. We argued elsewhere that, in as much as it is vital to change the buildings' names and take down colonial artefacts, such action is insignificant and unsatisfactory.

Changing building names is trivial because the demographics of those who occupy the buildings have not radically changed. This creates the impression that epistemic knowledge production is divinely ordained to be produced by Western European settlers or at least in Western ontology, as Blacks with presence and authority in these buildings have assimilated and are complicit in Western domination and the dehumanisation of Africa people and their epistemologies.

Further afield, many universities usually speak about decolonisation and transforming students demographics in their campuses today. However, science, engineering, health science and law faculties have shown limited transformation, as they are still dominated by white students. At the same time, humanities, arts and social science became the popular designated repository for black students.

Thus, when these universities are asked to account for transformation, they shall easily claim to admit and teach many black students on their campuses. This is despite argument from public intellectuals that Science cannot be decolonised because it is universal, yet black people are systematically excluded from contributing to science discoveries and innovations.

Our non-categorisation of Chumani’s effort as extraordinary is not to downplay the significance of that event on the vast decolonial conversations happening in corridors of higher education in South Africa. Also, our critique of current efforts to change name buildings and create a diverse university (albeit in soft disciplines) is not to say these are not crucial victories to the long journey of decolonization.

However, we challenge the university to be provocative and imbibe epistemic plus normative disobedience in their approach to decolonization. They should work with students, indigenous people and communities and non-human world to reduce the managerialism style of administering universities.

They must also be intentional in creating a multilingual university, as well as develop students who are cognizant and evades Euro-American and capitalistic norms beyond the academia.

Yonela Mlambo is MPhil candidate at UCT and Luqman Muraina is a Masters of Arts in Sociology candidate at UCT.

Cape Times

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